The ferry leaves Helsinki in the afternoon, and takes around thirty hours to reach Travemünde, North of Germany.
The boat this time is split half/half between passengers and containers, and there are very few passengers traveling. This turns out to be a good thing, as we have no cabin but “recliner seats”, which are old and don’t really recline at all. But because we’re the only ones in the recliner seat section, we can lay our camping mattresses on the floor, and we sleep like babies!
We arrive in Travemünde around 9pm, just in time for sunset.
There is unfortunately no direct train to Berlin, we need to wait in Hamburg between 1am and 5:30am… It’s probably been over ten years since last time we went to McDonald’s, but that’s the only place in the station where we can warm up and sit while waiting for the train. Sleeping there is however, understandably, forbidden. We finally get to Berlin a bit after 7am, the weather is terrible but it feels good (and a bit unreal) to be home finally!
#86 More pictures from the ferry to Helsinki
Fri May 17, 2019 13:53 GMT
#85 Stopover in Helsinki
Tue May 14, 2019 12:55 GMT
After a quiet night on the boat, we arrive in Helsinki in the morning. We’ve only done a few hundred kilometers, but some details show that we’re in a totally different country already…
We spend a good part of the day at home with Maria and her newborn, escaping only in the afternoon for an obligatory stop in Regatta cafe, without which a trip to Helsinki wouldn’t be complete.
We leave in the early afternoon to catch our next ferry, tomorrow evening we’ll be in Travemünde, back in Germany. Only few kilometers left and the trip is over… We don’t realize it at all!
#84 Last day in St Petersburg
Sun May 12, 2019 14:14 GMT
Our ferry to Helsinki leaves at 6pm today, which still leaves a bit of time in the morning to check out the shashlik (grilling) festival on New Holland, a small island near Sennaya Square where an old stronghold has been reconverted to a park with designer shops and trendy cafes. The shashlik festival is rather small, but we spend some time browsing the shops and seating in the sun, which finally came back.
We stock on vodka, smoked fish and pickled cucumbers for our night on the ferry and have a last lunch of pelmenis. St Petersburg is definitely a place we enjoy, and where we’d happily come back to see everything we didn’t have time to visit!
#83 St Petersburg, day 4
Sun May 12, 2019 13:37 GMT
We bid farewell to Dima and Margarita in the morning, drop our bags at the hostel, and go visit a monastery a bit South of the center. The church turns out to be nothing really spectacular (or are we getting bored of too many churches?), but the cemetery behind it is pretty charming, with its half destroyed graves disappearing in the vegetation.
A Russian specialty we haven’t tried yet is blinis, which are essentially the same thing as French pancakes. There’s a “Teremok” stand near the metro station selling some (Teremok is a chain with many stalls across the city), but the blinis we get are a bit bland compared to French crepes… Not willing to linger on a culinary disappointment, we find another place selling “puchkis”, Russian donuts. They’re fat and full of sugar, but much more satisfying! Nearby is the Pushkinaya 10 art center, a cluster of buildings occupied by art galleries. The place is not very lively but nevertheless interesting, we wander for a while in the corridors, most of them decorated.
We follow with a visit to the Loft Etagi project, which was apparently once a place with the same spirit as Pushkinaya 10, but is now much more commercial, and doesn’t have much charm left. There is a rooftop with a nice view on St Petersburg, but then entrance is not free and the weather still very cloudy, so we skip it.
Following Dima’s recommendations we go look for a bar around Nekrasovaya Street, when we get out the metro has stopped running already. Fortunately Dima is also a master of the discount codes, so we come back to the hotel in taxi… For 0₽!
#82 St Petersburg, day 3
Sun May 12, 2019 12:36 GMT
The weather is still being nice to us, we start the day with a visit to St Petersburg’s mosque, a massive building which with its mosaics reminds us of the mosques we saw in Iran. It’s prayer time as we get there, so we unfortunately can’t visit the prayer room.
Next to the mosque is the Peter and Paul fortress, one of the earliest settlements in St Petersburg. There are very few military buildings left inside, so it doesn’t really feel like a fortress anymore except for the walls surrounding it. From the small beach we get a nice view on many of the city’s major buildings along the Nieva river.
In the afternoon we pass by the Mars Fields, where an eternal flame is burning in memory of the soldiers who died for the country. Because of the 9th of May, a mountain of roses surrounds it, the burnt flowers reek meters away and make the whole square quite smoky…
A bit further away is the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built as a memorial to the Emperor Alexander II who was assassinated on the sidewalk where the church now stands. The entire church is decorated with stunning mosaics, which make the frescos super bright and clear. And because the church now operates as a museum only, taking pictures inside is allowed!
After a bit more walking around we come back to Dima and Margarita’s place and cook dinner for them before watching the first part of Kin-Dza-Dza, a crazy surrealist Russian film from the eighties. We’re all pretty sleepy when it finishes, but we’ll definitely have to see the second part when we come back home!
#81 St Petersburg, day 2
Sat May 11, 2019 15:49 GMT
Today Dima and Margarita take us to some parks a bit outside the city. St Petersburg has seen a number of Emperors and Empresses, and many of them had palaces built for them in large gardens for the summer days. Visiting all of St Petersburg palaces would probably take a month or more… The gardens we visit strongly remind us of the Sans Souci park in Potsdam, with its colorful baroque palaces.
We have a table booked in the evening in the center, we’re a bit early so Dima and Margarita show us a really cool space along the Fontanka canal, Tsiferburg. The entire building is used for cafes, co-working spaces and other shops, this is precisely the kind of place we couldn’t find in Moscow.
The restaurant in the evening is this time geared towards fish and seafood, again a pretty interesting experience. Two more friends join, we discuss about traveling in Georgia, maybe a future destination idea for us? At 10pm the fireworks of the May 9th celebrations start, but it’s nothing really impressive… A concrete consequence is that we get stuck in massive traffic jams while driving home, but we don’t mind, St Petersburg is beautiful up watch by night!
#80 St Petersburg, day 1
Thu May 9, 2019 18:42 GMT
We arrive around 10am at the station and go directly to Dmitry and Margarita’s place, our hosts for the first days. The St Petersburg metro isn’t as impressive as the Moscow one, less decorated but still with insanely long mechanical stairs. We drop our bags and come back to the center where we walk around the Griboyedov Canal before heading back to the central square. St Petersburg seems livelier than Moscow to us, we see more cafes and bars where we’d feel like stopping, and walking along the water is really enjoyable. It is somehow less cold and more inviting, even though the temperature is a couple of degrees lower than in the capital!
On the main square soldiers are busy preparing the cars and tanks for tomorrow’s Russian victory day parade on 9th of May, spraying the wheels with black paint to make them darker…
We walk down the famous Nevsky Perspective, bustling with people enjoying the beginning of the long weekend in the sun. We see various beautiful buildings along the way, among them the Singer house and another branch of the Eliseiev shop we visited in Moscow.
We meet Dmitry and Margarita in the evening for dinner in a fancy Italian restaurant, it’s been ages since we’ve had spaghettis! They take us afterwards to a cool spot near the ferry terminal where an industrial area has been converted to bars and restaurants with a view on the gulf.
We finish the evening in The Hat jazz club, once again we’ve discovered many places thanks to meeting local people that we’d never had known about otherwise!
#79 Last day in Moscow
Thu May 9, 2019 18:26 GMT
There’s in Moscow a place called Ismailov Kremlin, from what we read it’s a kind of souvenir and antiques market set in a (fake) traditional architecture. We’re not really sure that the visit is worth it, but there’s a big park nearby as a backup, so we go there in the end. The Ismailov Kremlin looks like a half abandoned, Russia-themed amusement park. The antique market only operates on weekends, so as we arrive there are only a few rows of stalls selling matriochkas, chapkas and other typical souvenirs.
The prices are a bit lower than in the city and can be bargained.
We spend part of the afternoon resting in the park nearby, and meet Dmitry in the evening. After cooking dinner together we finish packing our bags, bid him farewell, and head to the station to catch our midnight train to St Petersburg. We’re lucky and there’s no fat military officer snoring in the cabin this time, only a friendly mother with her son. The trip to St Petersburg takes only ten hours, we’re not used to staying in the train for such a short time anymore!
#78 (Finally) visiting the Kremlin
Tue May 7, 2019 11:51 GMT
We spend our Sunday with Dmitry walking in the park near his home. The river banks are full of people grilling in the warm spring weather.
On Monday we do our second attempt at visiting the Kremlin. We felt super smart when booking our online tickets, thinking we could skip all the waiting compared to people buying tickets at the booth. The less-than-super-smart part was that Monday is the day when all museums in Moscow are closed, except the Kremlin. So the queue this time is not for buying tickets, but for passing the security check, and there’s no way we can cut that one… Fortunately it only takes around half an hour of queuing, and we’re in.
The Kremlin is still used for government offices, so there are only a few areas we can visit. The churches around Cathedral Square are all quite impressive, and the decorations inside are often stunning as well. Some of the wooden icons date back to the 14th century, and the restoration works in Russia don’t make things look kitchy like in China. There is an impressive number of Chinese tourists, we try to slalom betweens the groups which is not too hard in the end as there is a lot of space.
In the afternoon we walk a bit more in the center, checking out some food stores with a fine architecture.
There’s a festival of a cappella singing happening in Moscow all over the city, we’ve heard a couple of nice performances already in the past days. There’s a stage set on Teatralnaya square too, we sit there for a while listening to traditional Russian songs.
#77 Saturday at Gorky Park
Sun May 5, 2019 23:17 GMT
We start our Saturday with a visit of the Donskoy Monastery, which we reach with the tramway. Tramways here are like in Irkutsk, single wagons that are probably over half a century old… It’s nevertheless a good mean for us to observe both the Moscow landscape and the people riding with us.
The main cathedral of the monastery doesn’t look so big from the outside, but the height of its dome is surprising from the inside. The walls are as usual fully painted. One thing we’ve noticed in Orthodox churches is that there’s always someone with a spray and a wipe cleaning the surfaces and the relics. Everything in those churches is spotless clean, you could eat on the floor without hesitating. A few churches later, the reason for this has become clear: devouts kiss all the items they revere when praying, so it probably makes sense to clean often to avoid epidemic outbreaks in winter…
We walk from the monastery to the Moskva river shore nearby, in the Neskoutchni garden. Before coming to Moscow, we thought it’d be a sprawling city, grey, full of cars and traffic jams. This reality is maybe true in some districts, but so far we’ve really enjoyed the large and numerous parks where locals flock on weekends. Walking North in the garden we reach Gorky park, which is full of people enjoying the warm spring days after a long winter.
The park spreads along the river almost all the way to the Christ the Saviour cathedral.
After resting for a while in the grass, we continue North to the Muzeon Park, where the New Tretyakov gallery is. The park is free to access and has many sculptures exposed.
We have dinner close to the Novokuznetskaya metro station. Russian food menus are full of tricks, many words sound like English or French ones but have a totally different meaning: among others, “kompot” is not a compote but an apple juice, “kotlet” is not a cutlet but a meatball, and “vinagret” is not a vinaigrette sauce but a beetroot salad. It’s interesting to see how words transferred from one language to the other, but saw their meaning altered in the process…
We meet Dmitry back at home but go light on the vodka, we’re anyway out of pickled cucumbers!
#76 (Not) visiting the Kremlin
Sat May 4, 2019 17:19 GMT
Today’s initial plan is to start the day not too late and to go visit the Kremlin and the mausoleum of Lenin, before it closes for the preparations of the May 9th parade. We leave the house around eleven, so much for the “not too late” part… In our plan, visiting the Kremlin is a simple thing: we get there, buy a ticket, and visit. The reality turns out to be a bit more complicated: there is no such thing as “a ticket to visit the Kremlin”, but instead various tickets for the various parts, with separate waiting lines. The waiting lines are over fifty meters long, we’d probably need to queue for several hours… After a bit of reading, we figure out that we’ll probably skip the armoury and stick to Cathedral Square. An announcement in the speaker: tickets for the armoury are sold out. It’s only noon and tickets are sold out, too bad for those who had been waiting for hours… We opt instead for booking tickets online for a few days later, we’ll only have to queue to exchange the vouchers when we come back.
The red square is already well underway with the May 9th parade preparations. As a consequence, the mausoleum of Lenin is already closed. Grrrreat success! In the South side of the red square is the iconic Saint Basil Cathedral, and the West side is nearly entirely occupied by the GUM, a historical shopping mall with a beautiful glass roof.
The main street leaving the Red Square is the Nikolskaya, lined with luxury shops. It takes us to the Central Children Store, a mall entirely filled with shops for children.
We spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the Kitay Gorod district.
In the evening cooks his signature dish, (Russian style?) shawarmas, which we eat around some beers, ending up again talking until late in the night!
#75 First steps in Moscow
Sat May 4, 2019 10:35 GMT
After meeting Dmitry, who’ll host us during our stay in Moscow, we set for the city center. The weather is not great, so we decide to visit some metro stations instead. While the idea might sound strange, metro stations in Moscow are, for many of them, amazing pieces of art, their high ceilings decorated with sculptures, mosaics or ceramic works. They’re also really, really deep under the ground, in Park Pobedy the escalator takes you over thirty meters down before you can board your train! We spend a few hours hopping from one station to another, before finally exiting near the cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
The cathedral is massive, it’s actually pretty new, having been completed only around twenty years ago. As in other Orthodox cathedrals we’ve seen, the walls inside are fully painted in pastel tones and gold.
We walk from the cathedral towards Arbat Street, a major shopping street nearby. While the shops there cater mainly to tourists and are of no great interests, we get our first taste of Moscow architecture, which mixes a variety of styles, from neo classical to sovietic passing by jugendstil or art deco.
We walk back to the cathedral and cross the river to check out Red October, an area formerly occupied by a factory but now hosting trendy bars and restaurants. It’s still pretty quiet at this time of the day and the places we see are a bit too fancy for our taste, so we head back home instead and spend the evening with Dmitry, discussing and drinking his homemade vodka until late in the evening.
#74 Irkutsk to Moscow
Tue Apr 30, 2019 08:33 GMT
Our train leaves at midnight, we leave Alexey’s place and take a tramway to the station. Tramways here are relics of a former time, they look like tin cans on wheels and are so noisy that one must shout to be heard when chatting inside. They’re also not particularly fast, but they have the advantage to be cheap, and more importantly still run late even on a Sunday evening!
We get on the platform around 11pm, but only half of the train is here! It came with only seven wagons from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, and gets extended here with seven more… Lesson for next time, if there’s one: there’s no point in rushing out in the cold evening on the platform as soon as it’s announced, wait until all wagons are here.
While we were traveling in “platskart” (open compartments) from Zabaykalsk to Irkutsk, this time we have a “kupe”, a closed compartment which we share with two other people. Our travel companions are a Russian couple traveling to Novosibirsk, and turn out to be very friendly, they unpack some food and beer and invite us to share everything. Another good point, they don’t snore when sleeping!
We lunch on smoked fish, carrots and cucumbers, while Dima and Margarita, our travel companions, take out of their bags a whole roasted chicken! There’s a happy pick nick atmosphere in our cabin.
Our ticket includes one meal, so in the evening we receive a “chicken fricassee with rice and carrots”. Our hopes were not very high, but even airplane food is better than the tiny plate and dry bread we get!
Dinner was served early at 7pm, and Dima and Margarita have to wake up early tomorrow as we’ll stop in Novosibirsk at 6am. We wonder if this is going to be a quieter evening, but try our luck and bring a bottle of vodka and some pickled cucumbers on the table. Dima and Margarita add some beer, Irkutsk sausage, cheese, bread and the remaining chicken, and we toast and chat until the bottle is empty. But the bottle being empty doesn’t mean that the evening is over! They take advantage of a half an hour stop at midnight to buy a second bottle of vodka and more beer, and we can continue this nice moment. We share our stories and exchange some songs, Dima and Margarita show us some pictures of their summer cottage along the Baikal and invite us to come there in summer to camp, fish and swim there.
The provodnytsa only comes once to ask us to make a bit less noise, but else doesn’t mind our happy gathering. We must apparently also be careful with the two policemen patrolling in the train, as drinking alcohol is theoretically forbidden, so we keep the compartment door closed. The second bottle is finished around 2am, it’s finally bed time!
We spend most of the second day alone in the cabin. When we stop in smaller cities, people on the platform sell sweaters, chapkas or dried fish. The weather stays rainy for the entire day, we’re crossing what seems to be infinite plains and forests of birch trees. The landscape is flat, completely flat, there’s not a hill or a valley around.
We get two new travel companions around 9pm, again two Russians, a military officer and a procurator, both traveling for work. The procurator is a slender man, and travels with nothing but a yogurt and a bottle of kefir. The military is shorter, probably weighs 120kg, and travels with superfat sausages, beer, vodka, and a pack of mayonnaise that he will almost finish in two meals… He takes out some vodka and beer, which we share along the evening, following the “tradition”. His presence in the cabin turns out to be a mixed blessing, drunk, he wants to fall asleep with music but has no headphones, so he simply plays it without… The procurator finally makes him turn the music off, but he restarts it in the middle of the night. When not listening to music, his snoring takes over. Finally, in the morning his alarm rings over and over, waking up everyone except himself…
The third day is pretty quiet too, we cross the ever present forests of birch trees, and some lakes and rivers. We are however not getting bored, it is simply relaxing to alternate between reading, knitting, eating, doing some puzzle games and taking naps. Our military companion continues to ingest more mayonnaise than we’d think is possible, mixing spoonfuls of it even in his instant noodles… In the evening he politely refuses our beer, hungover from the previous evening.
The train arrives at five in the morning on the following day, we’re in Moscow, finally back in Europe!
#73 The Great Baikal Trail
Sat Apr 27, 2019 16:03 GMT
We leave Irkutsk in the morning to reach Listvyanka, a town 60km away on the Baikal lake where our trek begins. The Great Baikal Trail is an associative project which wants to promote ecological tourism around the Baikal lake. They maintain some trails and a website with some maps and practical tips. Hiking the Great Baikal Trail is the easiest and probably the most popular option.
The lake is still partly frozen at this time of the year, boats are not operating yet.
We start the trek around 10:30am and enter a forest of birch and pine trees, hiking up along a river that’s still mostly covered by snow.
The lake appears in front of us as we reach the top of the hill, stretching further than we can see. We’ll learn later that the Baikal is over six hundred kilometers long! We walk down to the shore and make our lunch break on the beach.
The trail continues partly along the lake and partly above it, which brings a nice variations in the views we get. As we progress towards Bolchoie Koty, we reach parts of the lake that are already partly thawed. We don’t only see the Baikal lake, we also hear it: the ice is making a whole symphony of sounds as it melts, breaks and moves, from chime like sounds to loud cracks.
We reach Bolchoie Koty in the late afternoon, this is really a tiny village but we can still hear dogs barking and the occasional motorcycle.
The campsite we were hoping to use is a bit too close to the village to our taste, so we walk a couple of kilometers more to reach a quieter spot. We pitch the tent with a perfect view on the lake, start a fire, and eat peanuts while drinking vodka and watching the sun set… A really perfect setting!
The night is completely silent, we can only hear the lake which keeps creaking and cracking. The noises keep us awake for a while, as we keep imagining some animals roaming around our tent!
The first day was the longest one, the two days remaining to reach Bolchoye Golustnoye are easier, fifteen kilometers each on a mostly flat terrain.
The evening of the second day is much windier than the first one, we struggle to light our fire and must stay close to it once it starts not to freeze too much. We get a visit from the local ranger, who must be well over sixty years old, and rides a motorcycle that is not younger. We apparently were not allowed to light a fire where we did, but he is really nice and just asks us to be careful and to extinguish it well before we leave.
The third day is even shorter than the second one, we only have to walk twelve kilometers to reach the camp site before Bolchoye Golustnoye. The weather is nicer again, we can set our camp without rushing and stay outside for a while.
A bit after sunset, a herd of horses passes by and seeing us come to check if there are any leftovers of our dinner. They’re pretty insistent, and we must lock all our dishes in our backpacks to finally discourage them!
Our bus back to Irkutsk does not leave before 5pm on the following day, we spend the whole morning lazying in the sun and watching the lake, which we don’t get bored with. Bolchoye Golustnoye is a bigger village, we find a restaurant serving grilled Omul, a local fish from the Baikal.
In the evening we meet Alexey, who hosts us for our last night in Irkutsk. We spend a really nice evening around some beers in a bar with latino music playing in the background, it feels strange to hear this kind of music after three months of Chinese pop!
We spend our Sunday stocking up on food for our next train trip to Moscow, which will take three days. Smoked fish, sausages, cheese, kulitch (the local Easter cake), we won’t only eat instant noodles this time!
Our train leaves at midnight, and we’ll again be offline until reaching Moscow. It feels strange to think that we only have two stops left before coming back to Europe!
#72 A day in Irkutsk
Wed Apr 24, 2019 07:30 GMT
Today is a quiet day in Irkutsk, before we start our trek along the Baïkal lake. The weather is cold, around 4°C, but sunny, it’s quite nice for walking around the city.
Irkutsk is a Russian city, so you can’t avoid the sovietic architecture, with its massive buildings and oversized war memorials.
But there’s much more to Irkutsk than just sovietic buildings, and the center, while pretty small for a city of 600 000 inhabitants, is actually quite charming. The wide Angara river, with its clear waters comes from the Baikal and cuts the city in two.
We get to see our first Orthodox churches in Russia, some are very simply decorated while others have paintings all over the walls.
There are almost no high buildings in Irkutsk, the center is mostly made of two or three story houses, usually with colorful walls. There are also still many old wooden houses, many of them are not straight at all anymore!
Tomorrow we’ll take a bus to Listvyanka, and from there hike three days along the Great Baikal Trail to Bolchoie Golustnoie. We’ll probably have no internet until Saturday evening, so this blog will stay quiet for a few days!
#71 Zabaikalsk to Irkutsk
Mon Apr 22, 2019 16:50 GMT
We leave Cafe Svetlana in the morning and walk the three kilometers to the train station, today the weather is sunny and there’s no dust storm. After stocking up on food, we seat in the sun on the platform.
Before boarding the train, we noticed that the chimney on our wagon started emitting smoke… It appears the hot water tanks (samovars) in Russia are still operating on wood fire, a bit before the trip the wagon steward will start a small fire in the stove, and put the water to heat. On the other hand, wagons in Russia are more modern than in China, every cabin has two power sockets, and you can order food via WiFi!
Our wagon is actually mostly filled not with Russian, but with Chinese people! They are however a bit more disciplined here than in China, we don’t get any loud videos playing on the phones, and nobody dares smoking in the toilet.
The landscape during the first hours stays flat and barren with very little trees, the golden meadows spreading as far as the eye can see. In the afternoon, the first birch forests make their appearance.
We feast on salted fish and dark bread, which we wash down with a can of beer, a nice break from the instant noodles that are our staple food in the train. Life is good in the transsiberian!
The snoring of the Mongolian grandma in front of us is probably louder than the locomotive of our train, but we still manage to get a good night of sleep. The wagons are so overheated (between 24°C and 26°C) that I don’t even need a blanket…
Most villages we pass make Zabaikalsk look like New York in comparison, the train stops in villages made of a couple of wooden shacks, with the train station being the major building. We make two long stops in Chita and Ulan Ude and get the occasion to make a few steps outside to get some fresh air, but getting too far away from the train is still too scary for the newbies that we are, even knowing the departure times.
In the afternoon the Baikal lake appears on our right, majestic. It’s still almost completely frozen, a white sea expanding over the horizon.
We meet Dmitriy and Jagoda shortly after arriving at the station, they’ll host us for our two first nights in Irkutsk. We have dinner in a vegan restaurant, not something we’d have expected in the middle of Siberia!
#70 First steps in Siberia
Sat Apr 20, 2019 20:04 GMT
It takes two days and a night to reach Manzhouli from Beijing. We watch by the window as the landscapes gradually becomes more dry and barren. There are still patches of snow here and there, and rivers are partly frozen. Many cities we pass are only made of a couple of low houses grouped around a factory.
Most people get off the train in Harbin and before, the wagon is almost empty as we reach Manzhouli.
We reach Manzhouli at sunset, from the train already we can see Russian style churches, the border is clearly not far.
Getting a hotel ends up being a bit more complicated than we expected, we get refused in two places, maybe because they don’t take foreigners? Luckily we find a room in the Bright Pearl hotel, a massive building which looks like an expensive place, but which Maureen negotiates to 80¥ (10€)! We have our last dinner in China in a Mongolian place, the grilled meat and the fried pancakes actually feel a bit like Russia already.
Manzhouli does not feel like China at all to us: all signs are written in Russian and Chinese, and buildings are huge, mixing neoclassical and modern styles with crazy colors. There are mushroom shaped kiosks in the streets and bronze sculptures that look completely out of place. It feels a bit like being in a theme park…
We walk to the bus station in the morning, the border is not far at all but it’s impossible to cross it on foot, for reasons that elude us. We must instead take a pretty expensive bus, 70¥ (9€) for a trip of 20km at most… On our way we pass more buildings with crazy architecture, including a Russia themed amusement park with giant matrioshkas.
We’re the only passengers in the bus, so we get VIP service: the employees of the bus escort us at the immigration, showing us the way and cutting lines for us. For some reason they seem to be in a hurry, and try to rush us at every step. Bad luck for them, the checks take a long time. On the Chinese side, both officers seem to be at loss with what to do of a French passport, they flip through all the pages again and again, while we wait puzzled in front of the counter. After a while and more page flipping the door opens, we get our stamp, and we’re out of China. Things are not easier on the Russian side, the officer flips the pages over and over and finally asks me to stand back and wait. Maureen is sent to another office, where I can’t see her anymore. The officer makes a few phone calls, receive a few more, observes the passport under all kind of lights, I’m still not getting through. After some more time a second officer comes, they exchange a few words, and I finally get my stamp! Maureen is released roughly at the same time.
We get back in the bus and do the remaining 10km to Zabaikalsk, which looks like it’s been taken straight out of a far west movie… Apart from the train station, half of the houses are closed and crumbling, many are built of wood only. Major streets are paved, but smaller ones are dirt tracks, and the lashing wind sends tumbleweeds and clouds of dust in our faces. Everything looks old and rundown, it feels like we’re back in the perestroika times…
After withdrawing some rubles we start looking for a hotel. There are not many hotels here, and they’re all quite far from the center, it takes a good half an hour to reach the first one, which is closed. The second one we have on the map doesn’t exist, and we never find the third one… We ask a man passing by, he takes us to a fourth hotel not far that doesn’t appear on our map, but the lady there says that we can’t stay without a some kind of document we’ve never heard about, and that she needs to ask the manager for an exception. The manager is fine with this, but the price is way too high, almost 40€ a night, and this is not a palace! The next hotel on our map is two kilometers the way, the perspective of walking half an hour in the dust storm with our bags isn’t very appealing, but we go for it anyway. The wind is so strong we nearly lose our balance sometimes, we finally reach Cafe Svetlana, tucked at the back of a parking lot for truck drivers. The atmosphere inside is much nicer and the lady at the reception welcomes us warmly, the price is still above what we were expecting, 25€ a night, but the other options are far away and more expensive, so we decide to stay.
Nearby Cafe Svetlana are two other restaurants, also catering to truck drivers. We have lunch in Cafe Svetlana, and spend the afternoon in the common room reading. The place is quite lively, people come and go and chat around a glass of beer.
In the evening we try the restaurant nearby, which seems to be a Mongolian place, the waiters and most customers have a distinctly different face. The food stays however essentially the same: bortsch, gulash, dumplings, cabbage, meat and potatoes. While sleeping in Russia seems to be quite expensive, eating (and drinking) is surprisingly cheap, meals never cost more than 5€ for two persons (drinks not included).
As we’re eating our dinner, everything suddenly becomes dark: the electricity cut. People don’t seem to panic, we’ll discover that cuts in the evening are actually very common here, all cooks work with gas stoves and business continues as usual!
Back in Cafe Svetlana we order some vodka along with pickled cucumbers (we’re in Russia after all!), a man comes to our table to chat with us. He’s carrying a 1.5L cognac flask, and of course offers us to share it. We do some small talk with my broken Russian, he’s unsurprisingly a truck driver waiting for a few days in Zabaikalsk before driving back to Moscow. He shows us pictures of his home region, of his kids, of him with a big hunting rifle, and finally shows us his knife. He’s wearing a t-shirt with a white wolf saying “I’m Russian” in gothic letters, all boxes are ticked for the Russian man cliche!
We spend the next morning reading and writing in the common room, our friend from yesterday comes and proposes me some cognac, it’s not even ten in the morning… “Just a little” he insists, I tell him that I’m working and that I’ll drink afterwards. For lunch we go check the third restaurant, Cafe Aga. There’s a seventies charm to the inside, and the women working there is very welcoming, when she learns we’re French she says “oh, Notre Dame, so sad!”, it is sad indeed. We learn that gulash here is not served as a soup but only as a meat dish along with rice or puree, and that compote is not a dessert but the name given to apple juice, a popular drink, especially with vodka (we drink it without this time).
In the afternoon Maureen goes on an expedition into the dust to look for some food and more vodka for the evening, the one we get is suspiciously cheap (but there’s no other), we haven’t tried it yet…
In the evening the electricity cuts again for a good two hours, we have dinner in the dark at Cafe Aga, using our cellphone as a table light. We try a local specialty, buzzas, some kind of big meat dumplings, along with some cabbage and some fish eggs. The light is still off when we come back to the hotel, but comes back after another half an hour, and the common room is lively again! We get invited to a table to drink some vodka, the men are already quite drunk as we get there, I struggle to understand when they speak to me. They all agree that Maureen is charming, but that she should eat more cabbage to have bigger breasts (a local belief?). After many more glasses the women running the hotel kick everyone out, the men protest but don’t resist, and we go to bed. Before parting, the man with the cognac flask takes off his t-shirt and offers it to me. I’m not sure I’ll dare wearing it in Berlin!
Tomorrow we finally leave Zabaikalsk and take our train to Irkutsk!
#69 Good bye Beijing!
Wed Apr 17, 2019 11:25 GMT
We spend our last day in Beijing shopping for the next days, and have dinner at our now favorite traditional restaurant not far from home. After dinner we finish packing everything, this is our last evening in Beijing, tomorrow we take the train to Manzhouli, at the border with Russia! We must exit China before our visas expire on the 19th, so we’ll cross on the 19th in the morning.
In the morning we pay a last visit to the delicious baozi stall that provided us with so many breakfasts, and head to the train station. We really do not want to repeat the Shanghai-Beijing train fiasco, so we triple checked the tickets, and get to the station one hour early!
This is the beginning of our return trip with the transsiberian train, that will take us through the Baikal lake, Moscow and Saint Petersburg… First step, 33h to reach Manzhouli!
#68 Hiking the Great Wall
Wed Apr 17, 2019 09:40 GMT
We leave Beijing in the early afternoon for Xizhazi, a village close to the Great Wall where we want to start our trek. Xizhazi is quite easily reachable by bus, it just takes a while to get there. We arrive there around 5:30pm and start hiking towards the wall. The hike up takes a bit under an hour, we reach the wall just in time for sunset. There’s a tower right next to where we are, we decide to spend the night there.
After setting up our beds inside the tower, we sit on the roof and observe the sun vanishing behind the hills, sipping on a perfectly appropriate wine!
While we totally recommend watching the sun set from the wall, the Chinese wine part is actually not very good… We stay a bit on the roof to observe the stars, but the strong wind makes us retreat inside pretty quickly.
We wake up around 5:30am the following morning to see the sun rise. Some groups that slept in Xhizhazi are already on the wall before we’re up, talking loudly and with their cellphones blaring music at full volume… I suppose the taste for silence is not the same in all countries!
We start our hike towards the Beijing Knot, a spot further south where the wall splits in two branches. We’re on the unrestored part of the wall so some sections are partly collapsed, where the wall is not walkable small footpaths branch out and rejoin it a bit further. The way we’re walking is quite well signalled, small strips of colourful cloth tied in tree branches show us the way.
Hiking the Great Wall is a leg cruncher: there are almost no flat sections between Xizhazi and Mutianyu, our arrival point. The path is mostly very steep, one climbs up to a tower before climbing down and then up again to the next one. We must often use our hands to progress, and be careful about stones that are not well sealed.
We reach Jiankou, a very common access point to the wall, around noon. It’s been five hours walking, we take a well deserved break for lunch, followed by a little nap in the sun. From where we are we can see the tower we want to reach for this evening. We want to stop not too far from the separation with the restored part of the wall, where we’ll walk tomorrow before going back to the city.
It takes us another hard two hours to reach the tower, but the effort is worth it: there’s a good spot inside for laying the beds, and a great view from the roof.
Just after the tower, a random guy from the village set up a tent with a makeshift toll, and charges ten yuans (1.25€) for each person passing by, people seem to pay without making too much trouble. We’re hoping that he will leave for the night, and that we’ll cross before he comes back in the morning, indeed, after seeing that there are not so many people on the path anymore he closes his hut and goes home.
The tower where we are seems to be a well known spot for observing sunset, a couple of enthusiasts are waiting on the roof, setting up their gear. We decide to follow the trend, and build an almost professional looking stand to capture a timelapse of the sunset.
Unfortunately the phone hangs after a few minutes, so we only capture a few burnt pictures of the sun before it sets…
The scenery and the crows flying around us make us feel like we’re in an episode of Game of Thrones!
It gets dark pretty quickly after the sun leaves, and the wind is blowing strongly again, fortunately we’re well sheltered inside the tower.
Around midnight, a cute but annoying mouse wakes us up, she’s apparently interested the food we have in our backpacks… We try to scare her but she keeps coming back after a few minutes, we end up having to wake up again, find a piece of rope, and hang the bags in the air, where she can’t reach them. She keeps roaming around for a while but finally lets us sleep in peace!
Our legs are a bit sore in the morning, fortunately the path to the restored section of the wall is mostly in a good state, and gets flatter and flatter as we progress. We see no sign from the man of the toll when passing by his hut, our plan worked!
As we arrive to the separation between the two sections, we come across a women waiting on the wall. We fear she’ll also be operating one of those unofficial tolls, but she asks us “do you want beer?”. It’s not even 9am, so we politely decline and keep going.
The wall gets more and more full of people as we get closer to the access from Mutianyu, it feels weird to be surrounded by tourist groups after having been almost alone on the wall for the last days… The restored section is actually quite well done and retains the feel of the unrestored section, while being easier to walk.
We walk down to Mutianyu, swarms of tourists are queuing to take the cable car up and more and more buses keep arriving, even on a Monday morning. It’s all a bit overwhelming, we quickly walk down to the bus stop, and take the bus back to Beijing. In the end we have been three days on the wall, and didn’t have to pay for a single entry ticket!
We spend the afternoon relaxing at home and washing everything, our clothes and ourselves, of all the dust we accumulated on the wall. Our legs are so sore that every step we do is painful, but the views we got and the experience of hiking on the wall were totally worth it! And for now, the North of the wall looks pretty quiet…
#67 Beijing, day 9
Sat Apr 13, 2019 15:14 GMT
We wake up early today with the plan to visit Mao mausoleum on Tien’anmen square and the Forbidden City afterwards. As we get to the mausoleum, the line is one hour long, and we’d have to either check our bag in a locker during the visit (for 10¥), or do the visit one at another. Our passion for Mao falls short of justifying queuing for one hour, so we decide to try our luck some other day and to go directly the the Forbidden City instead.
There are many people there too, but there are also many entrance counters, so we barely have to wait to get in. Our a priori on the Forbidden City is not super positive: we haven’t heard many raving reviews of it, and the masses of visitors surrounding us don’t help much either. The experience is in the end quite good: we take our time to check not only the main circuit but the side buildings, some of which are still being restored, and finish the visit by a walk on top of the wall surrounding the place. The gardens north of the main palace provide a relaxing place for us to eat our lunch, and the side alleys reserve some surprise, like a European style building started in the 20th century just before the fall of the Qing dynasty that never got finished because of budget issues.
Another probably important factor is the fact that the travel guide gives us some context about most buildings we’re seeing, else we’d just feel we’re seeing one building after another, all of them looking quite similar. Even though we’re surrounded by massive groups of Chinese tourists, they’re not as pushy as what we’ve experienced at the Temple of Heaven: they will of course push you and move in random directions without considering whether their trajectory collides with yours, but in a much more reasonable way. It’s actually an entertainment in itself to watch those large groups: we’ve seen people trying to unlock closed doors or pass over safety barriers to enter forbidden areas without a hint of a doubt, it feels like a wave nothing can stop. Only the presence of a guard seems to be able to tame them. So there are guards everywhere.
We leave the Forbidden City and go back to Houhai Lake to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in the sun while planning our next trek: a two days hike on the Great Wall. This will be our last trek in China before taking the train to Russia!
#66 Beijing, day 8
Sat Apr 13, 2019 14:25 GMT
Today is a big day: we’re getting our passports back, and if everything goes well there will be a visa for Russia inside! The visa office only opens at 2pm, we take some time before to walk again around the Houhai lake, close to where we live. The southern part is really touristic, but the western side and the northern part are more quiet, we mostly meet locals taking a break from the city.
We take a bus to Dongzhimen from the northern tip of the park, get to the visa office, and, good news, we got our visas!
Getting our passports back also means that we can access the touristic sites where a passport is required to enter, namely Tian’anmen square and the forbidden city.
South of Houhai lake are three other lakes, one in Beihai park with an entrance fee (we skip it), and then Zhonghai and Nanhai lakes, which look accessible on the map, but which actually aren’t (or we never found the entrance). Continuing South, we arrive at the National Center of Performing Acts, a massive, beautiful egg shaped hall (designed by a French architect!) hosting music, dance and theater shows. The metal and glass dome is set in the center of an artificial lake, and clearly contrasts with the sovietic architecture of the Great Hall of the People behind it!
Sunset time is slowly coming, we go to Tian’anmen square to watch the flag lowering ceremony. The big Chinese flag on the square is raised every morning at sunrise and lowered every evening at sunset by a squad of soldiers. The soldiers come from inside the forbidden city, around fifty of them. The entire traffic along the square is blocked as they must cross the road to reach the flag. This must be the most expensive way to bring down a flag in the world…
After the flag is brought down and neatly folded with large staccato movements, military style, by the soldier in charge the police starts clearing the square. The concept of having the main square of the country fenced and closed in the evening is a bit strange to us…
We go back to the Beijing specialty restaurant we had found on our first evening here and try more new dishes: endive in (strong!) mustard sauce, and pork cooked with taro, tasty!
#65 Beijing, day 7
Fri Apr 12, 2019 22:28 GMT
Having seen cathedrals and temples already, we decide to go check the Niujie mosque and the Muslim district around it. The architecture of the mosque is typically Chinese, but the structure is of course different from a Buddhist or Taoist temple, with its prayer hall for men and women (although the women’s hall is actually more like a tent…).
Around the mosque are many halal shops and restaurants, as well as the Koranic school of China. The district is however not especially charming, most streets are quite wide and we can’t find a particular vibe to the area.
A bit East of the mosque is the Fa Yuan Buddhist temple, which unlike many other ones hasn’t been rebuilt since the fifteenth century. The entrance is unexpectedly free today so we get it, and find out there is not only a wedding happening inside, but also some kind of painting festival where many artists are lined on tables in the yard and do either traditional paintings or calligraphy. Seeing them at work is really impressive, people writing calligraphy do large strokes with an arm full of confidence, while painters doing landscapes seem deeply absorbed, and work with one color after another to build the final picture. The rest of the temple is very enjoyable as well, lilac trees are in full bloom, and hordes of Chinese are busy taking pictures of the flowers in every imaginable angle and position. Unfortunately we are also a target of their shooting spree… Whereas we usually notice people trying to discreetly take a picture of us, this time they take no gloves, and point their lens at our faces with no shame, which ends up being quite annoying.
We head North when exiting the temple, and cross various hutongs, some are getting their pipes fixed, while others are already on the process of being replaced by more modern buildings…
We reach the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, the oldest in Beijing. As the one of St Joseph, it’s nothing very spectacular, and it’s also closed so we can’t check the inside…
We meet on our way the Chinese version of R2D2, designed for situations where the cameras installed on every lamp post, at every corner and on every police car are not enough.
We take a bus to Liulichang street, close to Dashilar where we had been couple of days ago. Liulicjang has more shops selling paper, paintings, souvenirs and antiques, most seem to target tourists, we find books that we’ve seen new in a bookshop sold used for almost ten times the price!
The street is however quite nice, we continue all the way to Dashilar and then to Qianmen, another major shopping street. We come back close to home for dinner, the restaurant where we seat proposes a dish with one of the most poetic names we’ve seen so far. I can’t resist trying it, and it turns out to be an excellent choice, without any of the smell advertised in the name!
#64 Beijing, day 6
Thu Apr 11, 2019 17:33 GMT
We start late today, and find an awesome noodle shop in a hutong nearby. The place is called “Square brick factory #69” according to Google Translate, and it seems to be a popular place: even at 2:30pm, way after normal lunch time for Chinese people, it’s still quite full.
We continue back to Luogu alley, which is luckily not so packed today. We’re on the look for gifts and things to bring back, but don’t find anything really convincing there… We walk until Saint Joseph’s church, which is nothing really spectacular, but reading its Wikipedia page teaches us many things on how religions here are controlled by the government, and how priests in China are not under the Vatican’s authority and operate under a completely different hierarchy.
A bit further South is Wangfujing street, a major shopping area with many malls and brand stores. The area itself is not especially enjoyable, it lacks some more trees, and most buildings are built in a pretty dull 70s style architecture…
In the same area is a street full of street food stalls, packed with tourists trying local specialties, and taking pictures of the more exotic ones like scorpion skewers (we have yet to see anyone eating those). Between the food stalls are some tourist shops, all selling pretty much the same things.
We continue South and arrive at the Liqun roast duck restaurant, where we plan to have dinner tonight! It’s still a bit early so we explore the hutong around, the area around the San Li He river nearby is really charming. We come back to Liqun, get a table, and order our duck. We’re only two, so we order our duck “two ways”, that is roasted over a wooden fire, and with the meat remaining on the bones fried afterwards. We’re initially alone in our room, but luckily a group of young Chinese arrive shortly afterwards and join our table. Liqun is in an old wooden house, the decoration is pretty nice (lots of paintings of ducks on the wall), and although it’s in most tourist guides it’s still very authentic.
The cook arrive with our duck, and slices the meat on our plates, before taking back the bones to bring them to fry.
We were also given some kind of thin tortillas, some spring onions, some sauce and cucumber sticks. We look at our plates a bit confused, one of the Chinese guys explains that we have to wrap a piece of meat inside the tortilla along with the spring onion and cucumber. After a while, the waitress comes to check how we’re doing. “Are you putting the cucumber in the wrap?” she asks, we reply proudly “Yes!”. “Then you’re not duck experts!” she replies, “the cucumber is for cleaning your mouth after eating the fat parts”. She shows how to put not one but three pieces of meat inside a tortilla, using the first one dipped in the sauce to “paint” the tortilla first, before adding the spring onion. Now we’re duck experts! We manage to finish everything, but we probably now have enough fat to survive an entire winter fasting. Maybe it will prove useful in Siberia!
#63 Beijing, day 5
Thu Apr 11, 2019 13:27 GMT
We wake up early (as in, before 10am) to spend the day at the Summer Palace, a large complex of temples and palaces West of the city where emperors went to relax in summer. The Qingming holiday weekend is over, so there are in theory less people visiting Beijing, but the Summer Palace is one of the few places that don’t close on Monday, so we’re not alone either…
The park is built around a large, man made lake, the emperor didn’t hesitate to employ hundreds of people to dig it, and the excavated ground was used to build a hill next to the lake. This hill, Longevity Hill, is where most buildings are, and is also the side where we enter. We pass over Suzhou street, a small reconstruction of historical streets (visiting it would have required a separate ticket, not worth it in our opinion), and climb Longevity Hill to see its massive Buddhist temple.
From the top of Longevity Hill we get a good view on Beijing, which is completely flat so we can see far away. We can spot some areas, now covered in green fabric, where old houses have been destroyed to make space for newer ones.
We come down on the other side and explore the various pavilions, unfortunately we can’t enter any of them and must peek through the windows to get an idea of the interiors.
The terrace of the Tower of the Buddhist incense offers a great view on the lake. A bit further, the Gardens of Harmonious Pleasures are less packed with tourist groups, and give us a relaxing break.
Along the lake we spot something we’ve already seen in various other parks: people writing on the floor using water. The characters are clearly readable for a while, and then dry and disappear. We wonder what they can be writing, poems, philosophy?
We end the afternoon on the small island in the middle of the lake, enjoying the sunset, even though the air pollution pretty much hides it.
In the evening we meet Boris and Marion, and find a bar selling cheap Belgian beers, a trappist beer here is cheaper than a Budweiser in many other places! We spend a nice evening chatting together, and come back home walking through the hutongs.
#62 Beijing, day 4
Wed Apr 10, 2019 21:46 GMT
Today we go see Beijing’s 798 art district. The place was historically an industrial area, a joint project between China, the Sovietic Union and East Germany to produce electronic components. The factory started operations in the end of the 50s, but by the end of the 90s it was mostly unused, at the same time many artists were working in dire conditions in another area of the city, in the early 2000s many of them started moving into the empty areas of the factory. Nowadays, maybe half of the space is taken by shops or cafes and the rest by galleries, which often also charge an entrance fee. The place is still worth seeing though, as an area of the city with a unique (Bauhaus) architecture and feel.
On our way from the metro we passed by a small market, we go back there for lunch, a tasty cold noodle roll full of vegetables. The plane trees are in full bloom, the street is so full of pollen that it feels like being in a snow storm!
We go south towards Chaoyang, which turns out to be a business district, pretty dead on a Sunday. There’s a shopping area mentioned in our guides called Silk Market, which sells many clothes, probably all fake, we don’t stay long. We find however the sibling park of the one we visited yesterday, the temple of the Sun, which has a similar altar (although it’s closed to visitors). The area North of the park seems to be the Russian district: all signs are written in Russian, and the building we cross is full of shops selling fur or shipping services to Russia and Kazakhstan. There used to be a street market called Alien Street, but it has apparently been cleared a few years ago like many others.
A bit further is Soho Galaxy, a large mall designed by Zaha Hadid. Its modern and elegant design stands out next to the other buildings of the area, which all look quite dated in comparison. Just south of the mall, there’s also… a hutong, to perfect the contrast between tradition and modernity.
We continue further south and reach Chang’an theater, where Pekin Opera performances are held almost every day. Tickets for the same day apparently get a 30% discount, we decide to give it a shot and book two seats. The architecture of Chang’an theatre is nothing to write home about, especially considering some other theatres are in historical buildings, but it is supposed to be a place where amateurs go.
One question we forgot to ask when buying the tickets is if the show is subtitled. It turns out it is… in Chinese. The performance lasts for three hours without a break, and makes us appreciate to its fullest extent the gap between what Chinese people enjoy and what we enjoy when it comes to opera. Actors speak with voices that seem to come right out of a Monty Python sketch, and when singing reach a pitch so high that Maureen fears her glasses will explode. When we reach the point where we really want to cover our ears to attenuate the suffering, the audience bursts into applause. Chinese opera also seems to favor talking over acting and scenery, leaving us virtually no chance of understanding what’s happening on stage. We do need however to give credit to the make up and costumes of the actors, which are true works of art, in a style probably unique to China. Our take on Chinese opera: worth seeing, yes, worth hearing, we’re not so sure!
#61 Beijing, day 3
Mon Apr 8, 2019 18:03 GMT
This morning Anan, our host, is not sick anymore and can talk again. She’s been preparing mountains of dumplings, and offers us some, which we gladly accept. The house where we live is cosy and nicely decorated, something very unusual in China!
Our first stop today is Heaven Temple, a complex of various temples south of the center. It’s still a holiday weekend, in the main areas of the temple we swim through waves of Chinese people, and struggle a bit to peak inside the temple buildings. This temple is, unusually, built in a round shape. Like most temples in China, it was destroyed or burnt several times during its history, so the building we’re looking at is a pretty recent version of it.
The park around the temples is quite nice, we rest a bit in a gallery where two people are playing music.
We walk out of the parks through some hutongs towards the center, and randomly end up on Liuxue street, a very lively non-touristy place with many food stalls and restaurants.
It’s still a bit early for dinner, so we continue North and arrive on Dashilar, a major shopping street. The architecture here suddenly changes to a more European style, the street is mostly filled with tourist shops but there’s still a very nice atmosphere.
The street north of Dashilar, Yangmeizhu, is full of art galleries and fancier shops, but also retains its charm and authenticity.
We decide to come back to Liuxue street for dinner, and go for a beer to the Great Leap brewery afterwards, one of the major craft beer breweries in Beijing. The place is filled with a mixed Chinese/Westerner audience. The beer list is a bit daunting, they have over ten beers on tap! We find a spot to seat outside after a bit of waiting, the bar is set inside an old hutong house with a patio, which makes for a pretty enjoyable experience. Our beers finished, we can simply walk home, it’s really nice to be in a city with over twenty million people but to be able to reach many places on foot!
#60 Beijing, day 2
Sun Apr 7, 2019 18:26 GMT
We start the day with the Drum and Bell towers, near our home.
The entry fees dissuade us from going inside, we continue south, cross some hutongs, and end up on Luogu street, a major shopping street of the area. Today is a holiday, the street is packed to a point where it becomes difficult to just escape the mass of people.
The side streets are luckily quieter, we wander in them heading towards two temples in the area, the Lama temple and Confucius temple. The line to get tickets for the Lama temple ends up convincing us that we want to skip it, we’ve already seen many Tibetan Buddhist temples in Sichuan, and those were in use. Many temples here are now exclusively used as touristic attractions, although their architecture can be beautiful they lack the authenticity of active ones.
The line to enter Confucius temple is more reasonable, we get in. The temple area has several really old cypress trees, local people rub the tree’s knots, maybe for good luck?
We meet by chance two other French travelers while visiting, Marion and Boris lived here for around two years, and will come back biking to France over one year. We end up doing the rest of the visit with them, while chatting about traveling and life in China. The temple itself is big but dusty, the imperial college next to it ends up being more interesting: it explains the imperial education system of China as it was until 1905. Candidates would flock from all over the country every three years to the examination center, where they would be locked for three days in a tiny cell with food and lots of paper. They would eat and sleep there, and more importantly write many essays for the exam. Candidates passing the test would become imperial officers, a great social promotion and the guarantee of a good career.
We stay with Marion and Boris after the visit and walk a bit more through the hutongs around the temple.
Something that keeps surprising us in the hutongs especially but in China in general is the number of free public toilets: in Hong Kong we’d go to malls, which was already convenient, but in China there’s always a public toilet nearby. In the hutongs, it seems there’s one at every corner, old houses maybe had no toilets inside? The price to pay sometimes is privacy: even in Beijing some have no physical separation between each toilet, so you have to be comfortable knowing that anyone can enter while you’re squatting over the pan!
We end up in a bar with live music, folk songs in Chinese are much better than all the pop we’ve heard so far! We’ll spend the rest of the evening there.
#59 Beijing, day 1
Sun Apr 7, 2019 15:06 GMT
The train leaves us at around 10am in Beijing South train station, we go directly to the place we’ve booked for a week. This time, we went a bit fancier and have rented a room in a hutong, a traditional neighborhood. Beijing is arranged in “rings”, concentric highways centered on the forbidden city. Almost all tourist sights are inside the second ring, but the city has six of them. Large areas inside the second ring are still hutongs, narrow alleys lined with single story houses. It’s actually quite surprising to find this kind of housing in the very center of one of the biggest cities in the world! We read however that the government has been destroying most of them to build higher buildings.
After settling in, we go directly to the Russian Visa Application Center, after a short wait we get our documents checked and the application filed, we’ll know the results next week. We come back to our district and spend some time around Houhai lake. There’s a bathing spot there and the water is apparently warm enough, various people are swimming around.
We find a table (and an ice cream) and spend some time reading the travel guides, Beijing is a huge city with many many things to see, getting an overview of what we want to do for the next days takes us quite a bit of time!
In the evening we find a restaurant not far from our home cooking Beijing specialties, a good occasion to try new dishes. We don’t always know what we’re eating, but it all tastes quite good!
We go back to the southern part of Houhai lake after dinner, a strip of bars runs along the shore. Today is the first day of the Qingming holiday period so there are many people in the street.
None of the bars really appeal to us, we get some beers in a convenience shop instead and find a bench along the lake, a great spot for people watching. It gets a bit cold after a while, it’s time to go to bed!
#58 Shanghai, day 8
Wed Apr 3, 2019 15:40 GMT
We start the day with a temple again, this time Jing’an temple. The temple is big, but seems to be completely new… Further reading will confirm that it was reopened as a temple less than ten years ago. The statues inside are however much older, and much more sophisticated than the ones we usually see: made of jade, silver or wood, they are much more detailed and beautiful. Everything else in the temple is massive: the temple bell weighing seven tons, the huge drum over four meters in diameter… And the entrance price, a hefty 50¥ (7€). Here too, people are burning red bags, probably full of “fake money”, to ensure a good life to the deceased ancestors. Next weekend is Qingming (tomb sweeping) festival for revering the deceased ones, so lots more paper will be burned this week. Our practice of the Qingming festival is limited to eating the green, bean paste filled sticky rice balls (not unlike Japanese mochis) that are traditionally prepared at this time of the year.
We walk along West Nanjing Road all the way to People’s Park, the first part is all about luxury malls and shops (Hermes, Dior, Cartier etc. are there), the luxury level goes back to more “normal” levels as we approach People’s Park. There’s a Starbucks at almost every corner, sometimes even two facing each other on the same street! The side streets have lower, older buildings, repeating the usual Shanghai pattern of mixing modern and old styles.
People’s square has a section planted with the ever popular blossoming cherry trees, we sit there for a while watching people around, reading and doing crochet before going back to Eric’s place to pick our backpacks and catch our night train to Beijing.
At 5:30pm, we realize that the booking confirmation we looked at yesterday is the wrong one, our train does not leave at 7:30pm, but at 5:57pm… We run out of the flat and catch a taxi, but get stuck in Shanghai’s traffic and make it to the station at… 5:57pm precisely, still too late. Oh well, that was a really stupid way of loosing a ticket, but we still want to get to Beijing tomorrow morning, we have our hosting booked there, and we don’t want to bother Eric asking him to host us again. All remaining direct trains to Beijing are sold out, but we find an option transferring in Xuzhou, some random city halfway between Shanghai and Beijing. Maureen remembers that unused tickets can still be refunded, and indeed they can! We get 80% of the price back.
We have no seats in the first bullet train taking us to Xuzhou, but the trip last three hours only, and we find a good spot to sit on the floor. We’ll even find free seats for the last hour!
Arrived in Xuzhou around 11pm, we realize we won’t be able to wait inside the station until next morning as planned, as the station closes at night. Luckily we find a cheap hotel nearby, at least we’ll get some (if little) good sleep before the train to Beijing tomorrow.
We catch our train as planned in the morning and make it to Beijing as planned, it looks like we’re back on track after yesterday’s blunder!
#57 Shanghai, day 7
Wed Apr 3, 2019 15:05 GMT
After a much too large plate of wontons (dumplings), we take the metro to Longhua temple, south of the old town. A group of people there is busy burning red bags in the temple “incinerator”, we wonder what’s inside… The temple is pretty large, and includes a restaurant and even a vegetarian food shop!
The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt various times during its history, and also served for the Kuomintang people as a prisoners camp during the civil war. For the many communists that died there, there is a massive martyr memorial right behind the temple. The architecture of the memorial museum is a bit surprising, but probably fits the sovietic standards of that time.
As we get there various groups of militaries and policemen seem to be rehearsing some kind of parade, kung fu exercises and kitchy background video included.
The martyr museum is free to visit, we take a peek inside but it turns about to be really big, we don’t want to come back too late to the city center so we end up skipping most of it. Spending more time reading the “official” version of China’s history would certainly have been interesting.
We come back to Yuyuan garden early enough (the last admittance is at 4:20pm), it’s pretty full but still pleasant to visit. The garden turns out to be much larger than expected, and we take our time to explore it completely.
At 4:40pm, all visitors must leave the park. We go check the mosque nearby (nothing really special), and decide afterwards to go back towards the Jing’an district, which we haven’t really visited yet. We have a bar address there where beers are supposed to be cheap, we end up in exactly the same kind of place as the one with cheep beers in Chengdu: very large, loud crappy music, and (as promised) cheap beers. Our beers finished, we look for a cosier place, this is our last evening in Shanghai after all… We end up finding a small restaurant serving Shangaiese food at reasonable prices, we get snails and eels, delicious!
#56 Shanghai, day 6
Tue Apr 2, 2019 22:40 GMT
We sleep late today, for the first time in a long while… We have a lunch planned with Ellyse, a couchsurfer we’ve been in touch with. We cross the campuses of the Tongji and Fudan universities to get to our meeting point, a pleasant walk through the trees and gardens. Ellyse takes us to a “dry pot” restaurant, similar to hot pot but without the broth. We order… frog, apparently the specialty of the place. I don’t have fond memories of eating frog in France, but the frog here is much better cooked, it actually tastes a bit like white fish. There’s a lot of food, it takes us a good two hours to finish everything.
We go for a small walk on Fudan’s university campus to digest, Ellyse takes us to the 35th floor of the main building, from where there’s a good view on the district.
We head afterwards to the old city around Yuyuan garden, probably the #1 tourist spot in Shanghai, but we haven’t been there yet. The gardens are already closed when we get there, we walk a bit around, this place is a typical example of Disneyland-style renovated buildings…
Walking a few streets South, the streets become more authentic, although many houses have already been closed, probably to be destroyed or renovated.
We spend the rest of the evening with Hannes and two of his French friends that are spending some weeks in Shanghai. The bar is in Tianzifang, where beers in happy hours are as expensive as in Paris!
#55 Shanghai, day 5
Tue Apr 2, 2019 12:31 GMT
Today we decide to check out some places recommended by Eric, our host. After a hearty plate of wantons (dumplings), we walk towards Duolun road, a street with various historical houses where famous writers once lived.
The side streets are less fancy, but the houses there are still worth seeing. We’ll see this pattern of narrow alleys lined with low houses in various districts in Shanghai.
There’s also a small modern art museum on Duolun road, with some nice works exposed.
We continue our way towards the heart of the Hongkou district, which really feels like a historical (but living) part of Shanghai. In the background, we can see the skyscrapers of Pudong.
We continue to the 1933 building, a former slaughterhouse built in a mix of art deco and brutalist styles, which nowadays hosts some shops and various art spaces.
We follow the Hongkou river towards the South, all the way to the shore of the Huangpu river, from there we have a great, clear view on the Pudong buildings.
We want to come back later at night, in the meanwhile we continue walking towards the West, in direction of the Jewish Refugee Museum. It’s closed as we get there, but the streets around are again old Shanghai streets worth seeing. On our way we pass by a fully automated Auchan supermarket: scan your cellphone to get in, pick some items, and you’ll get charged when getting out. Unfortunately, we can’t try it as we don’t have an account…
The night is already quite dark as we come back on the shore, and all towers have their lights on.
We walk all the way to the Bund, the lighting there is more conservative in its color choice, but probably also more elegant…
It’s late already as we come back towards our home, and most restaurants here close at 10pm… Luckily there’s a Lanzhou place right by the corner where we live, and that one stays open until much later. The food is nothing special, but the owner is super friendly, and a lot of fun!
#54 Shanghai, day 4
Sun Mar 31, 2019 23:19 GMT
Gabriel has to go to work today, so we leave the flat with him around 8:30am. There seems to be a pattern in Shanghai, apparently it’s not common for Chinese Couchsurfing hosts to let their guests stay at home alone… And our next host won’t be available until later tonight, in the meanwhile we’ll have to carry our big backpacks around, again!
When walking a city’s streets in China, our eyes are always attracted by street food stalls. There’s almost always something that we’ve never seen, and this morning is no exception: in a small alley, a man is cooking some sort of pancakes, which he wraps around various fillings. There’s a line of people waiting, so it must be good, we decide to have this for breakfast.
The pancake turns out to be pretty good indeed, and really filling as well!
We go back to Daxue road and find a nice cafe where we can sit outside and finish preparing our visa applications for Russia.
University campuses have become sights to see when we visit a city, and we’re near Tongji University, so we get going towards there. On the way, a tricycle passes us, loaded with furniture and god knows what else. Chinese people have an art of packing an insane amount of stuff on a tricycle that goes beyond our understanding, once loaded you can sometimes barely see the wheels!
The campus is as expected worth seeing: it is large, full of trees, and because it’s weekend full of people. Mao greets us as we enter.
The main draw is Sakura road, an alley lined with blossoming cherry trees, packed with people.
We then take a metro to Shanghai library, in the French concession. We wander around Wukang road, an upscale area full of beautiful houses built in European style.
We continue walking around Wuyuan road, here we can see many nice cafes and restaurants, some streets actually feel like Brooklyn or Berlin, fixies included!
A bit further on the street, we find something that almost looks too good to be true: the Jiuhuar brewery, a place selling quality craft beer for under 10¥ (1.25€) a pint. We of course have to try it to prove it’s not a scam! After two glasses, we’re convinced it’s real, and take two take away cans to bring to Hannes, whom we’re meeting later.
We spend a nice evening with Hannes around some Japanese food (and Japanese beers), before taking a taxi back to Tongji University to meet Eric, who’ll host us for the rest of our stay in Shanghai. It feels good to know we won’t have to hop from place to place anymore, at least for a few days. Eric and his boyfriend are adorable, and they both speak perfect English. On top of this, we have the key to his place, so we’ll be able to come and go as we want!
#53 Shanghai, day 3
Sun Mar 31, 2019 22:42 GMT
Today Ao takes us out to eat a traditional Shanghai breakfast looking a bit like a sushi, a roll of sticky rice wrapping various fillings. We figure out it’d be perfect (compact, filling, easy to carry) for lunches in the train! This was our last evening at Ao’s place, so we leave with our backpacks on our shoulders. We won’t meet our next host before the evening, so we’ll have to walk around carrying them…
The weather is still not great today, so we spend the morning finalizing the papers for the Russian visa. Russia has an interesting concept of “invitation letter”: having one is mandatory to apply for the visa, and unless you know someone willing to write one for you, you have to order one from an agency. The Russian authorities also want to know in advance which cities you’ll be visiting, and where you’ll be staying, so the agency will do phony hotel bookings for you. It of course doesn’t matter if you actually stay in that hotel in the end or not…
In the afternoon we walk around Pudong, the area opposite of the Bund where Shanghai’s financial district is. The place concentrates many skyscrapers, some of them among the highest in the world. The buildings are not as densely packed as in Hong Kong, but the sight is still pretty impressive.
The most well known tower is certainly the Oriental Pearl, that looks like a sovietic version of Berlin’s TV tower.
We really like the Shanghai tower (632m high), with its glass envelope elegantly twisted around it, the Jin Mao tower (420m high) that looks like a futuristic pagoda, and the Shanghai World Financial Center (494m high), that looks like a giant beer opener.
The shore on the Pudong side is also a great place to watch the Bund with a bit more distance.
We leave Pudong right when most people are leaving their office to go home, the subway is quite packed, but people stay disciplined and queue neatly on the platforms.
In the evening we meet Gabriel, our host for this night. Gabriel lives close to Daxue road, a street nearby many universities that’s full of cafes and restaurants. The street is super lively as we get there, Gabriel takes us to a nice Lanzhou place, fancier than the ones we’re used to, but still very affordable. Back at home, his dog welcomes us enthusiastically. This dog is huge, and apparently never runs out of energy!
#52 Shanghai, day 2
Sun Mar 31, 2019 21:54 GMT
One of the questions we haven’t solved yet for obtaining our visa to Russia is the one of the entry ticket: according to the official website, one must present the entry ticket to Russia when applying for a visa. Because we’ll enter there using a local bus in Zabaikalsk, we can’t book the ticket in advance… Does that mean we can’t get a visa at all? Our emails to the visa application center have stayed unanswered, and a phone call didn’t yield much more information, as the officer’s English was a bit too basic.
Luckily, there’s a visa application center for Russia in Shanghai, we go there to try to finally solve this issue. It turns out that the entry ticket is not required at all, and that we could have applied for the visa in Shanghai already (the website said that foreigners could only apply in Beijing)! This is pretty good news for us!
We head afterwards to the Bund, the river shore in Shanghai where lots of beautiful buildings were built at the beginning of the twentieth century. Some of the entrance halls are open to the public, and are sumptuously decorated with wood, marble and mosaics.
From the Bund, we can see on the other side of the river Pudong, the financial area with its modern skyscrapers.
We try to visit the Shanghai Art Gallery, which is supposed to present “works of conceptual Chinese art”. As we get there, we’re a bit confused whether the space is currently being completely reworked, or whether there actually is an exhibition which is too conceptual for us to understand. Seeing nobody else around, we decide for the first option.
After visiting the small but interesting museum under the monument to the People’s Heroes, we take a bus to the train station to buy our train tickets from Shanghai to Beijing, and from Beijing to the Russian border. We now have all our tickets to come home! We then meet Zoie in the M50 art space, an old industrial space now hosting various art galleries and workshops. It’s already a bit late as we get there, but we manage to visit a couple of galleries and to explore the area a bit before it closes. It’s probably much nicer under a blue sky, but even under the pouring rain it’s worth a visit! Most galleries boast a very modern design, and some some of the walls are decorated with graffitis.
We have dinner near Zoie’s place, she helps us pick some traditional Shanghai meals… Including chicken feet (which are actually popular everywhere in China)!
#51 Shanghai, day 1
Sat Mar 30, 2019 10:53 GMT
On our first day we meet Ao, who’s going to host us the first two days. After chatting a bit, we get going towards Tianzifang, an area of the former French concession supposed to have some “shikumen” streets, that is streets with a traditional architecture. It turns out there are some old houses indeed, but Tianzifang became so much of a tourist shop gallery that we can barely see them anymore…
From Tianzifang we head up North and cross by chance the Sinai Mansion, a complex of neoclassical architecture hosting fancy Western shops and restaurants. This is a really interesting aspect of Shanghai: there’s a mosaic of architecture style, remains of the various populations and cultures that lived here over the past two hundred years.
After crossing Fuxing park, a park with French style flowerbeds and fountains (along with a statue of Marx and Engels), we reach Xintiandi, another group of shikumen streets. While Tianzifan caters to the tourist in search of cliché souvenirs and overpriced drinks, Xintiandi caters to the upscale Shanghai society, with a concentration of luxury shops and bars. We actually liked Xintiandi more, this is actually a place where local people go!
We continue our way North (under the rain) towards People’s Park. It’s actually quite dead at night, not so surprising for a park… We’ll have to come again during daytime. Behind People’s Park is the begging of East Nanjing Road, a large shopping street going all the way to the river shore. Most buildings on the street are pretty massive (but not ugly), and again mix various architectural styles in a seemingly random patchwork. Many big international brands are present. The side streets however still have some lower houses, and are full of smaller shops and food joints.
We come back near Ao’s place for dinner and try some local type of dumpling, filled with crab soup. This is delicious, but hard to eat, since the dumpling empties itself as soon as you start eating it, and the soup inside is really hot!
#50 The train from Kunming to Shanghai
Fri Mar 29, 2019 14:54 GMT
We spend our last evening in Kunming with Zoie, who takes us to a Buddhist buffet restaurant not far from her place. It’s quite refreshing to eat no meat for a meal! In almost all other dishes we eat in China there’s always some form of meat somewhere, be it only tiny chunks in the soup broth.
We go back to Zoie’s place to pick our bags, and take a bus to the station. On the way, we cross a part of the center that we hadn’t really seen yet, South of the old town. This part is full of high rise buildings, and feels more like a large city than the center of Kunming does. They of course have the obligatory illuminated buildings displaying animations.
The wagon where we have our seats seems to be quite full, but people are apparently more disciplined in sleeper trains: unlike in other slow trains we’ve taken before, they can smoke only on the platforms between wagons, and they don’t litter everywhere. Each wagon has eleven open compartments, and each compartment holds six beds over three levels, the wagon is essentially a large dormitory! Higher classes have compartments holding four beds only, and a door to close the compartment, but in our opinion this didn’t justify the price difference. The bottom berth is more expensive than the top ones, since it can be used to sit during the day. People from the upper berths (like us) can use the two tiny folding seats in the corridor instead (although there are only two seats for four people).
A great advantage compared to trains in Western Europe is that Chinese trains have a hot water dispenser in each wagon, which means unlimited drinking water supply, and the ability to cook instant noodles. As soon as the train leaves the station, people line up in front of the hot water dispenser to fill their water bottles and noodle pots.
One thing we hadn’t counted with is the ambient music in the train, which plays Chinese pop songs almost uninterrupted from seven in the morning to ten in the evening. The volume when seating in the corridor is still bearable, but it gets pretty annoying when you’re laying on the top berth just in front of the speaker… At 10pm, all lights turn off, and everybody goes to sleep.
Our bottom neighbours wake up around 6am the day after and start cooking their breakfast noodles, we try to sleep a bit longer, hiding our head under the pillow to dodge the music that started playing again. I spend the morning writing postcards and looking at the landscape while Maureen reads in her bed. Around 11am, our bottom neighbours along with a couple of other men from the compartments nearby set up a makeshift table and start unpacking a mountain of snacks, as well as several bottles of Chinese liquor. As we’ve already seen in other places in China, men and women don’t mix in this kind of gatherings: men drink among men, and women chat among women.
After a while, a member of the group comes to me, he’s the only one who speaks a bit of English, and he has apparently been appointed as their translator. He invites me to join the group, which turns out to be a bunch of retired policemen returning from a trip to Kunming. They serve me some liquor and share the snacks they brought, one of the guys shows me some pictures of him and his wife visiting the Gallerie des Glaces in Versailles last year. Because the translator is not always around, the “conversation” between me and the group is essentially us cheering before drinking. After some time Maureen gets invited to join as well, it looks that unlike the Chinese, foreign women are allowed to drink, but only beer!
The rest of the day is more quiet, our drinking companions sleep the alcohol off while we read on our beds, rocked gently by the train.
We finally arrive in Shanghai at 11am the following day, spending one and a half day in a train is actually not that terrible!
Sun Mar 24, 2019 12:20 GMT
Kunming invites to a relaxed lifestyle, and we let ourselves fall into it!
On Friday, we visit the university campus in the morning. As in Dali, the campus has large garden planted with high trees, including the ubiquitous blossoming cherry tree. We see students working in the shade of those trees, how great would it be if all campuses in France would be like this!
We follow with a walk in the Lotus Flower Pond Park, with its nice lake in the middle. The park is full of elderly people, it actually looks like an open air retirement home, with its various activities: singing, card playing, tai shi, fishing…
We come back to the alleys behind Zoie’s house and stop for a while in Oni cafe, a tiny place which also roast the coffee beans itself. The small quiet streets, the tiny cafes, the trees, it almost feels like being back at home in Neukölln!
After dinner, we go bouldering with Zoie. It’s been almost three months without climbing, and we can feel it in our arms!
On the following day we go visit the Yuantong temple, a large Buddhist temple nearby. The temple has nice gardens and a pond, it spreads all the way to a small hill in the bottom with Chinese signs engraved in the rock, unfortunately that part is nowadays closed to visitors. It’s around noon and we’re getting hungry, we notice that plenty of people are walking around with a bowl of rice. By following them we find out that there’s a canteen serving vegetarian lunch for 5¥ (60 cents), perfect!
In the afternoon we take a bus to the botanical garden, a bit outside the city. The streets on the way to the bus stop are packed, which does not prevent scooters to try to drive through the crowds!
The botanical garden seems to be a popular place for locals to spend their Saturday, we can see many families having set their camp on the grass for the day. It is also a perfect place for taking pictures with the blossoming trees, some groups apparently came here only for this! The garden in itself is nothing spectacular but still a nice place to walk around, the camellia section is also worth seeing.
We join Zoie in the evening to go to a traditional Chinese music concert, happening in a bookstore in the center. It turns out when we get there that the concert is next week, this evening is a lecture about Kunming (in Chinese…), with a bit of music playing in the middle. Hazel, Zoie’s dog, doesn’t seem to enjoy the music (or wants to sing along?) and starts barking, so Zoie goes back to the main room of the store. We join her shortly afterwards and spend the rest of the evening chatting around some drinks, this bookstore is a really nice place!
On Sunday morning we walk around again in the area around Zoie’s place, before heading to the center to check out the markets there.
Like in other cities, many markets are selling live animals, birds and fishes but also frogs, salamanders, hamsters, snakes… It still feels weird so see so many living things crammed in tiny boxes and surviving under dubious conditions.
Behind the animals market, an antique market spreads across several streets.
We stop by a post office to get some stamps, the stamps here don’t have glue on them, instead a pot of glue is available for you to stick everything together… It takes skills not to end up with glue all over the place!
We’ve seen in some guides that there’s a zone with old factories converted in galleries and bars called Chang Kuo, not too far from the center. It seems however that this place is now mostly closed, TCG Nordica, the main space there, has moved somewhere else, and the area is now rather dead.
Zoie invited us to join her at the closing party of a bar in the Zhiku district, a place we haven’t been to yet. The place holding the concert looks really cool, it’s a pity it’s closing! The bands playing are either punk or rock bands, we get to see for the first time some less conventional and more liberated Chinese people.
There’s also, unsurprisingly, a very high proportion of foreigners attending. We stay there until the end, when the police comes to end this racket. We’ve really enjoyed our time there, this is clearly one of the advantages of couchsurfing, otherwise we would never have been aware of this event!
On Monday we go back to the university to visit its small but very nice anthropology museum, before spending the afternoon doing some shopping for our train ride to Shanghai… Which will last no less than thirty eight hours!
#48 Bada to Jinghong to Kunming
Fri Mar 22, 2019 16:41 GMT
We take the 8am bus in Bada to Menghai, where we stop for a while to explore the market before going back to Jinghong. On top of the usual fruit and meat stands, the market also includes many cloth shops, selling lots of colorful fabrics used to make the traditional skirts many women wear.
We spend the evening resting in the hotel yard, doing some planning and chatting with the staff about tea and many other things.
On the following day, we get to taste various kinds of teas with the hotel owner, whose family operates a tea farm in the region, and who is herself a tea master. She explains us the difference between fermented and unfermented tea, how the leaves should look like for a good tea, and many many other things. After two hours of tea tasting without having had a breakfast before, we’re starving ! We go to a nearby place to try something new, baozis panned and cooked in an omelette, this way their envelope becomes slightly crunchy, delicious!
In the evening we walk to the bus station to get our bus to Kunming, a trip supposed to last around thirteen hours. To our surprise, the bus is a sleeper bus, we’ll have a bed for the night! The Chinese manage to pack thirty four beds in a single bus, the berths are clearly not large, but enough to lay comfortably… Assuming you’re 1.70m tall at most!
We get to Kunming in the morning and meet Zoie, who will host us for the days we’re spending here. Our impression of Kunming is immediately positive, although it has seven million people it doesn’t feel like a huge city, and the small streets around where Zoie live are quiet, planted with trees and almost without cars. After leaving our bags and swallowing some noodles we go explore Green Lake Park, just south of where we live. The park is set around various ponds and is full with people dancing to all kinds of music and of bands playing, even though today is a weekday.
In the center of the park is the museum of water supply, because Yunnan is prone to droughts having a proper water circuit became quickly important as the population of the city grew. The signs in the museum apologize that gathering reliable information about the history of Kunming’s water infrastructure isn’t an easy task, and indeed, besides a few dates and an old (French!) pump there’s not much to see!
We follow our visit with the old streets of the city center, most houses look like they’ve been recently rebuilt but there are still some old ones standing. We pass by an old pharmacy in the center still preparing plant based remedies the traditional way, the house where the pharmacy is installed is also really worth viewing.
On our way back we pass another park full of people playing cards and Chinese chess. Even after two months in China, we’re still amazed by how lively parks are, visiting one is always a nice experience.
We join Zoie and Martial (another French guy visiting the city) for dinner in a small restaurant in the alleys behind Zoie’s house, which serves dishes smaller than the ones usually served in Chinese restaurants, so we can try many of them. Yunnan cuisine includes lots of mushrooms, we also get centennial eggs (eggs aged for several months inside a lime shell), shrimps, and many other yummy things!
#47 Hiking Xishuangbanna
Tue Mar 19, 2019 22:16 GMT
Yunnan is known as a region with many different ethnic groups living together. To get a glimpse of this, we decided to go hike for a few days in villages around Jinghong. This will also allow us to see the local landscape better.
We take a morning bus to Menghai, the ride takes almost two hours although we have less than 50km to cover… A roadblock in the middle of the trip makes us believe we’re going to miss our bus connection in Menghai, police controls are apparently reinforced on this road to catch Uighurs trying to escape China towards Laos. We make it in Menghai just in time to catch the next bus to Xidding, from where we’ll start our trek. On the way to Xidding we can see many large rice fields and huge greenhouses, this is the first time we see a more “industrial” agriculture, so far we’ve only seen smaller parcels being cultivated.
We have lunch in Xidding and start walking along the road. The landscapes are lush and green, we hike between tea plantations, sugar cane fields and banana trees. Some sections of the path go through a tropical forest, where we can hear many birds singing.
The villages we pass are quite different from the ones we saw in other regions, houses are often built using metal roofs instead of traditional ones, and we can clearly see that people here don’t have to worry about cold weather.
Larger villages often have their own Buddhist temple, in a style similar to the one we saw in Jinghong.
In the tea plantations, villagers are busy picking leaves, we’re at the beginning of the spring harvest for tea. The tea harvested here is Pu’er tea, Yunnan is the only region in China producing it. Pu’er tea is apparently the only tea which continues “aging” after the harvest, its taste changing through the years. The tea culture here is very similar to the wine culture in France, and prices vary depending on the region of the plantation, how old the trees are etc. Becoming a “tea master” actually requires many years of study!
We follow along the fields all the way until Zhanglang, where we’ll spend the night. We find a family to host us, as in most houses here there’s a tea table on the terrace, and we get to taste their production.
We get a delicious fish dinner, and spend the rest of the evening relaxing outside.
There’s a haze in the valley as we start walking on our second day, first through the forest and then again along the road between the fields. The sun is pretty strong today, we break a chunk off a sugar cane of the side of the road and sip on its juice along the way.
We pass the village of Manwa, where we see our first Banyan tree near the temple. Those trees are emblematic of the region, and can become really large.
In the horizon we can see some fields burning, farmers use this technique to clean the fields and fertilize them with the resulting ashes.
We get to the village of Bada in the early afternoon. It has been a bit over twenty kilometers walking, our feet start to be tired… As we enter the village a policeman stops us to ask where we’re going. We’re afraid he’s going to ask for a “tourist hotel” booking or something similar, but after a few minutes and a phone call he lets us go. As we cross the main square we hear a pig squealing, two people have loaded it on their shoulders to weigh it, the poor pig probably doesn’t have much longer to live…
From Bada we can either take a bus back to Jinghong the following day, or hike another ten kilometers to Man Mai, and then a bit over twenty kilometers the following day to Daluo. Our map has been quite complete so far, but the paths between Bada, Man Mai and Daluo are partly missing… We decide to give it a try, but after one and a half hour trying various paths in the forest we give up and decide to stay in Bada. Local people point us to a hotel, which is apparently closed, but in China there’s always someone who remotely knows the owner and who can open the door for you.
We drop our bags and go back to the main square, where the pig we saw earlier indeed hasn’t lived much longer, and is now being shaved before being cut into pieces.
We witness all the steps of the preparation, villagers already come to buy parts of the pig right after they’ve been cut away. There’s no chain of the cold here, but the meat is very fresh when it gets cooked!
We have dinner in the only restaurant of the city, and spend the evening reading in the room. Tomorrow we’ll be back in Jinghong for one last day before heading to Kunming, which is going to be another very long bus ride!
#46 Jinghong, day 1
Sun Mar 17, 2019 21:48 GMT
It’s already warm as we get out of the hotel in the morning, in search of food and of a nicer and cheaper place to sleep. Jinghong is probably the first place in China where we see people wearing light t-shirts in the streets and walking in flip flops!
We go check the lively market and have some food there, the stalls are full of tropical fruits and many of them sell things, like insects or frogs, that we haven’t yet seen on markets in other cities.
In the afternoon we seat for a while at Mei Mei Cafe, which is supposed to have useful tourist information about the region (and they in fact do). This is typically the kind of place we’d usually avoid, a large place selling western food, but the drinks turn out to be very reasonably priced, and the waiter is really nice. We try some coffee from Yunnan and Pu’er tea, also from the region, both are quite good!
We decide to spend the next days hiking in small ethnic villages west of Jinghong.
We find a nice hostel, drop our bags there, and go for a walk towards the Mekong river, which crosses the city. The architecture here reminds us much more of South Eastern Asian countries than of traditional Chinese buildings, especially the temples.
We seat on the river shore and drink some beers, observing the bar boats full of kitchy lights on the other side blaring music at full volume.
We follow with a visit of the night market almost along the river, it’s packed with people eating grilled food or shopping for random things. As in the tea houses, squads of ear cleaner are at work.
We dine on grilled fish and octopus, as well as something we can’t fully identify (chicken trachea maybe?).
The ambience back at the hotel is really laid back, we chat a bit with the staff and the other guests before going back to our room to pack the bags, life in Jinghong is warm and relaxed but tomorrow it’s hiking time again!
#45 Last days in Dali, the long way to Xishuangbanna
Sun Mar 17, 2019 20:57 GMT
We decided to go to Xishuangbanna after Dali, at the very South of China, next to the border with Laos. The bus station is in the new town of Dali, a good one and a half hour trip from our hotel. The last bus to Xishuangbanna leaves at eleven hours in the morning, and nobody really seems to know how long it takes. Some say nine hours, some say thirteen…
It seems the army is also patrolling in the city here, as we’ve seen in Litang in Tibet, with the same huge trucks.
As we’re in the new town already, we decide to go check Erhai Park and the prefecture museum, which is supposed to present the Bai culture (and which is free). From the top of Erhai Park we get a view on the new city. I guess many buildings looked futuristic when they were built, probably in the 70s, nowadays they look a bit like the scenery of an old science fiction movie.
We cross a few districts mixing both old and brand new houses, the latter being built almost on top of the former ones. This is a recurring theme in China, old things get simply scrapped and replaced by new things…
The museum turns out to be so-so, English translations are quite spotty, but we do get to see some interesting marble plates and some nice prints. The building itself is a rather cheap concrete rebuild of a traditional Bai house, some of its rooms are completely empty…
We spend the end of the afternoon resting in the nice hostel garden, in the sun.
The following morning we get in the bus at eleven, the roads in Yunnan are not worse than in the Tibet part of Sichuan but they seem to be even slower, over the entire trip the bus will only very rarely drive over 50km/h. As a result, it takes us more than fourteen hours to reach Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna. It’s 1:30am as we get there, we go to the hotel of the station, fail to negotiate the room cheaper than 120¥, but not having to check other hotels at this time of the night is well worth 20¥!
Thu Mar 14, 2019 16:00 GMT
Today we get a bit outside Dali to the village of Xizhou, 20km North of the old town. A part of the village has already been transformed by tourism, but luckily it’s still easy to walk a few streets further to get a more authentic experience.
After exploring the center of Xizhou, we start walking towards the lake shore, a few kilometers west of the center. There are a couple of small villages between Xizhou and the lake but they don’t see many tourists, as most of them take a taxi to get to the lake.
As it often happens to us, we end up in the middle of nowhere as we get hungry, after passing dozens of restaurants half an hour earlier. We pass a small village on our way, but there are only a few tiny supermarkets and no restaurants. At some point, we see a kind of parking on our right where many women gathered around tables, and seem to be cooking a big banquet in a makeshift kitchen. We try our luck and ask them if it’s possible to eat, the lady nods, we get a table a get served a pretty nice lunch, and even a fruit for dessert. As we eat, the women (over ten of them) are still busy cooking more and more dishes in huge proportions.
They look quite confused when we ask the price after eating and just say no with the hands. We insist but there is no way. To our surprise, we got lunch for free. That’s true that this place doesn’t look like a restaurant…
We finally get to the lake, a line of taxis is waiting to get the tourists back to the center.
The lake shore is a good place to take pictures, so we again observe the potential of Chinese people for posing for pictures. As part of our effort in integrating with local people, we try some posing as well.
We walk back crossing more small villages, in one of the streets we pass there seems to be a communal dinner, the people there are eating the same dishes we had for lunch!
The visit was really worth it, even though we’re happy to be based in Dali, which has more to offer in terms of things to do, restaurants etc.
We spend the evening going some planning for the rest of the trip, looking for Couchsurfing hosts in Kunming and Shanghai, and trying to figure out the intricacies of getting a visa for Russia on China, without a cross-border train ticket… Which is apparently not so simple!
#43 First days in Dali
Thu Mar 14, 2019 10:37 GMT
We take a bus from Luoshui to Lijiang in the morning, our first stop in the way to Dali. Lijiang is also a common stop for tourists in Yunnan, but it became so touristy that you even have to pay to enter the old town… We decided to skip it altogether. We do take a bit of time to walk outside of the old town and to check out a big market, the rest of the city actually feels quite relaxed and enjoyable! The weather is nice, and many street stalls sell exotic fruits. We lunch on sticky rice cooked inside a pineapple.
In the afternoon we take a train to Dali, where we’ll stay for a few days. The city is next to the Erhai Lake, one of the largest in Yunnan. Funnily enough, we get a sleeper wagon, even though our ticket is for a normal seat… It apparently sometimes happen, and you’re still supposed to seat on the bottom berth, using the upper ones to take a nap is not allowed.
We get to Dali in the evening, the old town is mostly filled with restaurants, bars and tourist shops but the ambience quite nice. Many houses seem to be authentically old, and the old town is large enough that you can walk a whole day inside.
After getting a hostel, we come back to the old center to try some local snacks. The food here can also be really spicy sometimes!
On our second day we meet a Chinese-French family staying in the same hostel as us, they decided to move to Dali to escape the pollution of Shanghai. Following their recommendations, we go check the university campus a bit out of the old town, which is full of blossoming cherry trees. On one side of the road, a policeman signals that entering is not possible, and sends people away. On the other side of the road (literally three meters away), the other policeman seems to be letting people through… We go there, and enter the campus along many other people.
We seat a bit in the university gardens and eat some durian and other unknown fruits we got on the way.
Even outside of the old center, many houses are built following the style of the Bai, the biggest ethnic group here.
The city is bustling with building sites, in almost every street we pass houses are being built or renovated. The equipment used by workers is more than rudimentary, but the lack of modern equipment is compensated by the number of workers. Unlike in Europe, women and men seem to be equally present on building sites here.
We go back to the old center and wander in the streets until the evening.
Yunnan is a region mixing many ethnic groups, the Han and Bai being the biggest but not the only ones. This is also reflected in a variety of cults being practiced, in the old town we’ve seen both Taoist and Buddhist temples, a mosque and a church. The church mixes Catholic symbols with the local architecture.
In the evening, we go for dinner with a Chinese couple we had met on the train to Dali. We try a local specialty, “crossing the bridge noodles”. The name comes from a legend, where a man isolated himself on an island to study for his exams. His wife would bring him noodles every day, but crossing the bridge to the island takes some time, and the noodles would cook too much. The solution she found was to bring the boiling broth in a first jar, and the rest of the ingredients in another one, so that they could be mixed just before serving. This dish gets served today following the same principle, you get a bowl of boiling broth, and the rest of the ingredients on a separate plate. You wait a few minutes after mixing them, and what you get is pretty much a standard bowl of noodles…
After saying goodbye to the couple, we ponder going to a bar for a beer, but prices are quite high and the ambience in the hotel is really relaxed, so we decide for some beers there instead. Life in Dali is pretty good so far!
#42 Lugu Lake
Mon Mar 11, 2019 10:10 GMT
Today is a “no hiking” day, our feet are too sore… We take the car to Yongning in the morning, the road goes from 1500m to 3600m high, we’re quite happy we didn’t have to do this on foot! We get to Yongning around 11am, and find a car going to Luoshui, a city on the shore of Lugu Lake. Transportation here is based on shared taxis more than bus lines, there are probably not enough people to fill a bus anyway. Taking the shared taxi just for ourselves is more expensive, so we tell the driver we’re ready to wait a bit, see if more people come. We seat in the sun meanwhile for a plate of noodles. As we finish our noodles, the driver appears again, he now has four people in the car, so we hop in and off we are to Luoshui!
Luoshui is a pretty touristic place, actually the whole lake shore is. It’s low season however, so we only get a few buses of Chinese visiting during the weekend. We find a cheap hotel, buy our tickets to Lijiang for the next day, and decide to find some bikes to rent. We bike all the way to Luowa, on the other side of the lake, crossing many small villages on the way. The lake has a very clear water and some nice mountains all around. Even though its shore has many buildings, none of them are too high, and they all respect the local architectural styles. All along our way, we can see old women wearing traditional Naxi or Mosuo hats, the two major ethnic groups present along the lake.
The main attraction for Chinese tourists is a boat tour on the lake, many villages have a row of canoes waiting for tourist buses to appear. Almost all buildings along the shore are either hotels, restaurants or tourist shops.
As we bike towards Luowa, we cross the border of Yunnan and are back in Sichuan again, close to the Tibetan part. We can see the familiar prayer flags hanging in many places, and a couple of stuppas.
The way to Luowa goes across a part of the lake through the Marriage Bridge, an apparently 300 years old wooden bridge which also seems to be on the standard circuit of package tourists, it’s packed with people.
We come back to Luoshi in the late afternoon and seat on the shore, watching Chinese girls taking pictures of themselves on the canoes in the sunset light. Some of the poses they take are really hilarious, the show entertains us for a good half an hour.
The regional specialty here seems to be grilled meat or fish from the lake, we start looking for a place where we can try either of those. The first one we get to makes us understand that we’re not enough people to eat a whole meal (indeed, all other tables have at least six people). In the second one which seems to do either grill or hotpot, we meet two Chinese who’re also on the look for eating partners. We decide to join them, which also spares us trying to understand the all-Chinese menus.
The Chinese guy decides that this place is quite expensive, and that we should try another one. We don’t mind, so we end up (by chance) going back to the first place we visited, but there he doesn’t seem to be happy again, too many items on the menu are not available. We end up in a third place, which as we enter is completely empty. The waiters are however busy setting dishes on many tables. Suddenly, a bus of Chinese storms in the restaurant, their guide yelling some instructions about how long they have to eat and what’s coming afterwards in its microphone. It’ll take them watch in hand 15 minutes to eat, before they’re shoved out of the restaurant and to the traditional dance show that happens every evening in Luoshui, another mandatory stop for all visitors (we’ll skip it). Our “teammates” also want to go see the dances, so the Chinese guy has been harassing the waitress all along to get his dishes served faster. In the the, he ordered very classic Chinese dishes, and nothing really special from here… Oh well, we let him leave to the party and stay in the finally quiet restaurant to finish the dishes, which he left half full.
We go for a small walk after dinner hoping to find a place where to have a last beer, but the only nice bar we find is grossly overpriced, we opt instead for the good old strategy of getting beers in a supermarket and drinking them quietly in the hotel room.
Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Dali via Lijiang, Dali seems to be really touristy as well, but we hope to find some villages around with a more authentic feel, and we want also want to stay in the same place for a few days in order to rest a bit and plan the next steps of the trip.
#41 The road to Labo
Sat Mar 9, 2019 21:33 GMT
Today is supposed to be an easy day, we want to hitch hike as much as possible to reach the village of Labo, and possibly go further. Liuqing seems to have less than ten cars in the village altogether, so our hopes of a ride are not so high for the section until Fengke, which is at a crossing with a larger road. We walk the 12 kilometers to the crossing, as expected no car passes us.
The “larger” road turns out to be really quiet as well, we have to hike the remaining ten kilometers to Labo completely… In twenty two kilometers only a single car passed us, and didn’t stop. The Fengke-Labo road gets the award of “shittiest road to hitch hike” so far.
We finally make it to Labo a bit before 2pm, our feet hurt and the sun is burning our necks. Luckily Labo seems to have some hotels and restaurants despite being a small village, we find the first one open and order something to eat, along with a cold beer to cool down.
We do not want to walk more today (nor tomorrow!), we sit at the end of the village and try to get a ride to Yongning, a city not too far from the Lugu Lake, our next goal. The road is not getting busier, the people from the shops in front of which we’re seating tell us there’ll be no car going there today (people travel in the morning), but that a car will take us tomorrow for 80¥, which seems like a reasonable price. We can sleep in the hotel in the same building, which is also quite cheap, and even have dinner there. This looks like a nice package, we accept the offer.
We rest a bit, and later have dinner with the family, which runs all the businesses of this building: motorcycle garage, supermarket, and guesthouse (they also have a few crops and some animals). They make us try some fermented cow milk of their production, one of the first times we see dairy products in China.
The sky at night is clear and full of stars, we go to sleep hoping that tomorrow the goddess of transports will be nicer to us!
#40 Hiking to Liuqing
Fri Mar 8, 2019 19:08 GMT
We take a bit of time in the morning to walk around Baoshan Stone City, which doesn’t take much time given the size of the rock it sits on.
We err a bit before finding the path towards Yanshuangluo, but locals put us on the right way. Various roads have apparently been built since our map was updated, so we can’t completely rely on it.
On our way we pass by all the animals of the farm, wandering freely on the paths: chickens, goats, donkeys, pigs…
We get to Yanshuangluo around lunch time, an old man proposes us some food, we accept the offer and sit in his yard. We quickly notice that the place doesn’t look like a restaurant, but apparently the old man sent someone to get some food (which doesn’t make much sense, but lots of things don’t make much sense for us in China). Time passes but no food seems to appear, in the meanwhile the old man got weirder and weirder, insisting that we take pictures of him with a picture of a goddess and of his identity card.
At some point, an older man gets out of one of the buildings with no window, he gets shoved back in by our “host” who closes the door on him. It’s been fifteen slightly uncomfortable minutes, we’re pondering about just leaving, but apparently our food is ready (we still couldn’t get a price from the guy, which worries us a bit). We transfer to another house where there are people cooking, which is already reassuring. We have lunch the three of us around a small table, the old man keeps babbling in Chinese. We try to ask the other (saner) people in the room if the rest of the path is in a good state, it apparently is. We’d like to start hiking again not too late, we still have two passes to climb. The old man asks for 100¥ (even though he hasn’t cooked anything himself), which is an absurd price, the other people look a bit embarrassed. We give 30¥ to the people who cooked and walk away, this whole game has lasted long enough!
The path climbs steeply above Yanshuangluo, but is easy to see, and matches our map.
We need to cross several valleys in order to reach the one of Liuqing, where we want to sleep tonight. After a few hours of climbing, we spot our gateway to the next valley.
The first tunnel leads to another steep climb, which finally takes us to the highest point for today, the entrance of the second tunnel. The sun is hitting us pretty hard as we climb, we’ll get our first sunburns of the year!
In the third valley, the path is much wider and way less steep, the vegetation also changes completely from dry, small bushes to oaks and pine trees mixed with cactus and palm trees.
We reach Liuqing a bit after 6pm, it’s been a long day walking, we’re quite tired! We ask a first person if there’s a hotel or a guesthouse in town, he says there’s none. The third person we ask suggests we try our luck in Fengke, but there’s no way we’re going to walk the ten kilometers to there now… We ask if there’s maybe a place where we can pitch our tent, but he takes us to the municipality building instead, and says we can sleep in the table tennis room. We also have access to the kitchen, this is perfect! Above us stands a big red sign: “Always go with the party”.
We set our camp in the room and cook some instant noodles and some tea, while eating we hear some music playing lower in the village. We go check it out after dinner, some people have gathered in the school to do some traditional dances. As the women see us coming, they invite us to join the dance. I do quite many mistakes, the woman on my left can’t stop laughing until the music stops (a good five minutes later).
After that dance is over, we all gather around the fire and tea is served, the women talk between each other, while we stay quiet and observe them.
Dancing starts soon again, and continues until well after we leave!
#39 Baoshan Stone City
Thu Mar 7, 2019 20:06 GMT
We leave Daju in a bit of a hurry, we thought the bus would leave around 8am but apparently the driver was easy earlier… Daju was nice and warm, the bus takes us all the way up to 3200m high, where we get off to hitch hike towards Baoshan. It’s snowing up there, so we opt for walking while trying to get a ride, else we’d just freeze. It takes a couple of cars, but we finally get a ride all the way to the road split 17km away from Baoshan. We had initially planned to do that part on foot, but after an hour walking the snow is getting stronger, a pickup from the Chinese electrical company passed by and offers us a ride directly to Baoshan, it’s an offer we can’t refuse!
We get to Baoshan a bit before noon. The village is quite lively, with lots of people doing their shopping on the main street.
We can spot many women wearing the traditional Naxi dress (Naxis are an ethnic group very present in Yunnan), with the blue hat, the apron and the special jacket in the back.
The village is located in a valley where basically all the space where all the space below the cliffs of the mountains is used as terrasses for crops. This is the first time we see so many of them in China, and it looks quite characteristic of Southeastern Asia.
We find a local full of people eating noodles and drinking baiju, and get our own large noodle soup to get some energy before the hike. We really like this village ambiance where tables are shared, and everybody speaks with everybody.
We start our hike up, we need to climb a pass to get to the other valley. The weather oscillates between sunny and a few drops of rain, when it’s sunny it’s warm enough to walk in t-shirt, which is really enjoyable!
We’ve read various things about “Baoshan stone city”, apparently the village is supposed to be on a rock, but we really can’t see the rock, to us Baoshan looks like a regular village on a hill… We’re a bit puzzled, but continue towards Liuqing, the next village on our roadmap. Liuqing is almost 30km away, which is too much to walk for an afternoon, so we’ll stop in a village on the way when we feel we’ve walked enough.
The road we’re walking on looks nice and new, but it seems it was built the Chinese way, very quickly (a pattern we’ve seen more than once): in many places the terrain below it has started to collapse and the road to break, in various other places landslides covered the road completely. The road is probably only a few years old, but already needs to be rebuilt…
A bit before crossing the pass, we start to see the Yangtse river in the background. Its deep blue color is quite surprising and beautiful.
A bit after the pass, our map indicates a path that would allow us to shave quite many kilometers compared to following the road, but we can’t see where it starts. Luckily, a local is also going that way, we follow her and after jumping a few bushes, the path appears!
We go down the valley towards the water, here as well we can see many field terrasses.
After going down some more, the Yangtze appears in front of us, this time much closer.
It’s almost 5pm now, so we decide to go to a village nearby to find a place for the night. As we get closer to the river, we see a group of houses set on a pillar of rock.
It turns out this is the Baoshan Stone City we had read about, and that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Baoshan we passed earlier… Weirdly enough, Baoshan Stone City doesn’t show as a major thing in any of the maps we have.
A part of Baoshan Stone City is not actually on the stone, I suppose there was no space left… All houses are old traditional ones, the village is really beautiful.
As we enter the village, and after passing a couple of closed hotels, a woman comes to us and advertises her guesthouse. We decide to give it a try, it’s set in one of the old wooden houses with a nice patio and a terrasse overlooking the river. The prices are very reasonable and the lady is adorable, we decide to stay here.
We drink our tea while enjoying the last hours of sunlight, before having dinner on the same terrasse.
It gets a bit colder at night but it’s still far from what we had a week ago. Tomorrow, we’ll try to hike through various villages all the way to Fengke, before crossing the Yangtze river, again!
#38 Tiger Leaping Gorge, day 2
Wed Mar 6, 2019 20:32 GMT
We wake up a bit before eight to have breakfast, the owner of the farm cooked us some baba, a local wheat bread which we get served with honey. It’s nice to observe how everything here is done in its time, without rushing things: the owner takes his time to light up the fire, make the baba dough, flatten it, and finally cook it. Although life conditions here are quite basic, having this time is in a way a great luxury.
We start hiking around 9:30pm, the aim for today is to reach Daju, a small village on the opposite side of the river. The path goes down all the way and ends up merging with the road. The valley opens up more and more to become a plateau above the river.
On the way, we pass various paths to get down to the river to see the famous rock from where the tiger would have leapt over the river, all of them charge something, sometimes even twice, one time to get down and another time to climb back up! This whole Tiger Leaping Gorge thing has really become a big business, and we can see more and more new being built in many places… There’s a clear risk that this development could spoil the place. Our take on the hike is that it’s a pretty nice trek, but that the gorge itself is mostly a marketing thing. The current price is still reasonable for what it is, let’s see how it evolves in the coming years!
We need to find a ferry to cross the river. There are apparently two, the old ferry, which maybe does not work anymore, and the new ferry. Our map also shows a third one, let’s call it the new new ferry. We walk until where the new ferry is supposed to leave, but all we can see is the gorge, without a path to get down to the water, or anything that would look like a place where the ferry would dock.
Some local people confirm us that there’s indeed no ferry… Oh well, we continue walking, and at some point we see a bifurcation with a “ferry” sign painted on a rock, that kind of matches what we have on the map for the “new new” ferry. We give it a try, and start walking down the laces all the way to the water. As we get there, we can spot two ferries, but they’re out of the water… There are however two boats in the water on the other side, but nobody to be seen.
There are two different phone numbers painted on stones near the shore, we call the first one, the phone seems to be off… On the other side of the river, we see a car stopping near the ferry sign, and maybe calling someone. We decide to wait a bit to see what happens. After fifteen minutes, there’s still no ferry in sight, we give the second number a try and someone answers! I tell him “you are ferry Daju? I go Daju”, he seems to understand and hangs up. Shortly after, we hear the sound of a boat engine approaching and, miracle, our “ferry” appears!
We have no idea of the prices, but also no real alternative, so we both board the Zodiac. The crossing takes around 30 seconds, we end up paying 40¥ (5€) for two people, which seems reasonable enough. On the other side, more cars are now waiting, we figure out there’s also a bigger boat which can carry cars, the captain just hasn’t arrived yet.
We walk the remaining distance to Daju, the village is surrounded by fields and mountains and is quite pretty, with lots of old wooden houses.
The weather has been getting nicer and nicer as the altitude became lower, it’s now warm enough to not have to wear a coat anymore. We can see again the blossoming cherry trees that we had seen at the beginning of the trip.
We find a hotel on the main square with a nice patio where we can rest in the sun, wearing only a t-shirt and being barefoot!
After a while hanging out in the sun, we walk a bit more around the village. This is quite quickly done, our map only indicates three streets, and there doesn’t seem to be many more in reality.
People here seem to have dinner early (and we had a pretty light lunch), so we decide to find a place to eat before everything closes. It’s still warm enough to eat outside, something we couldn’t imagine doing two days ago!
Tomorrow we’ll try to get to Baoshan, with a combination of bus, hitch hiking and hiking… We’ll have to set the alarm clock early to catch the bus, again!
#37 Tiger Leaping Gorge, day 1
Tue Mar 5, 2019 21:18 GMT
It’s still dark as we wake up to finish packing and catch a taxi to the bus station. It takes around two hours to get to Qiaotou, the village where one starts the trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We start hiking around half past nine, the morning part will be the hardest: we need to hike first 300m up through a steep track and then 400m again, that second part is known as the “28 laces” (it’s quite steep too). Unlike around Mount Gongga, there’s no altitude to hinder us, however unlike around Mount Gongga we’re carrying all our stuff with us this time, our backpacks are much heavier… We’re not going to leap over anything ourselves!
As we climb up, we can see the cultures in terrasses of some villages, the gorge itself will only be visible later.
The last laces are hard, but we finally make it to the top at 2600m high, from where we get a beautiful view on the mountains and on the Yangtze river.
The path goes then down to 2300m pretty steeply again, and stays pretty flat afterwards for the rest of the day. The gorge is actually very open and looks more like a valley… The trail is also pretty high above the river, so it doesn’t really feel like trekking in a gorge.
The weather forecast was quite pessimistic about today, it was supposed to rain lightly pretty much the whole time… Instead of this we get a pretty clear day with lots of sunny moments, and only a few drops here and there. This, combined with the warm-but-not-too-warm temperature makes the hiking experience so much better!
Our initial objective was to reach the Walnut Grove village, 25km away from our starting point, but we have to scale it down a bit if we don’t want to end up walking at night… We decide to stop at a farmstay run by a local family, the Five Fingers Hostel. As this is still low season, we’re not sure if it’s going to be open. We still walk the three remaining kilometers (man, do those backpacks feel heavy), find the house, knock on the door, nothing… The only hint that someone’s maybe living here is the old dog barking behind the house. We really don’t feel like backtracking to the previous open hostel we’ve seen, and we have the phone number of the hostel, I attempt a call. The person on the other side does not speak English, but it at least seems that he’s alive, and that he has an idea of what the Five Fingers Hostel is… We manage a better dialog through google-translated SMSes, the guy tells us that the main door is open, and that we can go in and serve ourselves some hot water, he’ll be there in a little while. We enter the yard, the place is built around a central patio and is really charming, a baby goat and some tiny chicks are roaming inside.
The view on the mountains over the roof is really nice as well.
We sit down and wait for the owner to appear. Suddenly, some goats storm in the yard, followed by the son of the owner trying to kick them back out.
After the yard is goat-free again, he comes to greet us and shows us the rooms. The showers also have hot water!
The father and the son still have some work to do, mainly feeding the goats, which enter the yard again (this time rightly) to drink their “evening soup”. A herd of goats somehow feels like a group of hyperactive children on sugar overdose, a single moment looking away and the goat will go eat the plants of garden or climb on the tables instead of staying where it should be. The whole scene actually looks like a circus routine, we watch amused the two men running in all directions, slapping the goats that don’t behave, and trying to ensure that the whole process follows some kind of order.
We can’t really communicate (besides very basic things) with either the father or the son, but both are lovely and always smiling, we really feel welcome here. We eat dinner all together in the kitchen before moving around the stove in the living room, where we spend the evening writing postcards and this blog. Tomorrow we’ll hike to Daju, at the end of the gorge. We’re looking forward to seeing the goats again tomorrow!
Tue Mar 5, 2019 19:52 GMT
We take an early bus to Shangri-La, the bus is much older and basic than the one we had to get to Litang from Kangding. The same rule that governs smoking in trains (allowed in slow trains, forbidden in fast trains) seems to apply to buses: while the buses we had so far were modern and non smoking, it’s clearly allowed to smoke in that one… Our front neighbor lights one cigarette after another, along with other passengers.
Smoking is almost universal for men, at least in rural areas. It’s much, much less common for women, we’ve only seen young women smoke in large cities like Chengdu. I very often get offered a cigarette, but Maureen never, even if she’s seating right by me. Smoking is also allowed in most (cheap) hotels rooms… Except on the bed apparently.
The road from Xiangchen to Shangri-La is as the bus, quite rough compared to what we’ve had so far. Some parts are dirt tracks, and it’s overall quite bumpy. The scenery however is beautiful, we pass by many traditional villages in a beautiful gorge where people still wear traditional clothes. It takes a bit over five hours to reach our destination, as expected it’s snowing there. This time, we’ve prepared a real hostel name, in case the police is waiting for us. But nobody asks us anything, we get to our hostel in the old town.
Shangri-La was actually named Zhongdian before 2001, but got renamed for marketing purposes… The city is split in two, the new and the old Shangri-La. Old Shangri-La is made of traditional wooden houses, and suffered a terrible fire in 2014, which means most houses in the old Shangri-La are actually newer than many houses in the new Shangri-La (the house were however rebuilt in traditional style). Our hostel is in an old wooden house that survived the fire, it’s run by a very sympathetic Korean guy who’s been living for over ten years here.
After dropping our bags, we go for a walk in the old center. Nothing here is very real, it’s all businesses catering to tourist needs, but it’s still quite pretty.
We go visit the main sights, the temple in old Shangri-La (with a prayer wheel so big it needs six people to move it), the museum of the Long March, a great example of communist “communication” about the history of the cultural revolution, and the chicken temple, a temple a bit outside the old center with cows, pigs and chicken roaming around. It’s, again, all pretty but nowhere as charming as what we’ve seen in Litang.
We go back to the hostel to plan our next steps, we plan to hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge the “classical” way, but to continue afterwards with a mix of hiking and hitch hiking towards Lugu Lake. We go walk a bit in the new center in the evening, where the architecture is… very different from the one in the old center.
After some food shopping for the hike (no smoked tofu this time!), we find a place outside the touristic area for dinner. Shangri-La has a local beer brand, which turns out to be pretty good compared to most Chinese beers, which are super light and don’t have much taste.
The alarm clock for tomorrow is set at six again, to catch the bus for the entrance of Tiger Leaping Gorge… And this is supposed to be holidays!
#35 Litang to Xiangcheng
Tue Mar 5, 2019 08:31 GMT
Today, we leave Litang to go to Shangri-La, in Yunnan. Because it’s a pretty long way to go, we’ll make a stopover in Xiangcheng halfway. The bus system to go to Xiangcheng is a bit peculiar: one cannot buy tickets in advance, there’s a single bus per day starting from Kangding, passing by Litang, and finally going to Xiangcheng. If there are empty seats on the bus as it leaves Litang, you can get in, if not you stay in Litang.
We get to the bus station a bit before 11am, which according to the ticket lady was the hour when they know if there’s any seat left in the bus. It turns out that nobody really knows and that we have to wait till the bus arrives, so we find a spot in the sun and wait. We meet the only other traveler in the station, a French guy biking his way from Thailand back home, who’s still pondering between bike and bus to cross the next pass at 4600m high. We chat a bit while he eats his lunch, he finally decides to attempt biking, we wish him good luck and go back to waiting in the sun.
Most of the time, the station has no buses, the employees seat in the sun with us and chat together, while observing with curiousity everything we happen to take out of our backpack, phone, book etc. Around 1pm, a guy comes to us and delivers our sentence: the bus is full, no seats to Xiangcheng for today. We bid farewell to the station employees, load our backpacks on our shoulders, and we’re on the road again!
We’ve had some luck last time with hitch hiking, so we decide to try again, it’s still early enough to have a chance to catch a car going there. And we get luck again, after a couple of minutes a car stops, and accepts to take us to Xiangcheng for around the same price as two bus tickets. We get in, Xiangcheng here we come!
The road, like the one which took us from Kangding to Litang, is beautiful, we cross one desertic plateau after another, driving through snowy passes between each. We’re surrounded by mountains, yaks (as usual), prayer flags and white stuppas. Once in a while we cross a Tibetan village, with its characteristic houses.
As with last time we hitch hiked, our driver listens exclusively to Tibetan music. This time we also get Tibetan pop, and unlike last time the video clips continue playing even while the car’s diving. Tibetan pop is ok for a few minutes, but it does get a bit tiring after a few hours…
This is Tibet, so we get police controls again. The first one goes pretty smoothly, we get off the car, get our passports checked, the officer exercises his English (“what’s your name? My name is …”), and we leave. The second one just before reaching Xiangcheng takes a bit more time, we stay in the car but the officer takes our passports, and the driver has to get down to talk with the officers. They go through the passports many times, taking photocopies, pictures, the whole thing lasts a good fifteen minutes without us having any idea of what’s happening. Finally, we get the green light to go again.
We’ll soon understand what the discussion between the driver and the policemen was about, they apparently asked him to notice the police when he’d drop us in Xiangcheng: as we get off the car, a “welcoming committee” of two officers is waiting for us, and of course wants to know what we’ll be going, where we’ll be sleeping etc. Maureen finds the name of a guesthouse in the travel guide, but we tell the officer we want to get our bus tickets for tomorrow first. He escorts us to the ticket office, and then to our hotel. Unfortunately, the dirt-cheap guesthouse we wanted has the same name as a huge hotel on the main street, the police of course takes us there. The whole thing is pretty funny for us so far, but we know remember other foreigners telling us that “foreigner compatible” hotels in China are at least three stars…
Indeed, this is a three (Chinese) stars hotel, and the lady at the counter asks for 160¥ (20€) a night. I bargain a bit and get it down to 140¥, but don’t manage to get it any lower… I tell the officer that this is too much, and show him other cheaper hotels I found on Baidu Maps (the Chinese equivalent of Google Maps), he replies that those are not “foreigner hotels”, and that we can’t go there. I ask what’s a foreigner hostel: “a hotel with personal specialized for foreigners”. This apparently doesn’t include speaking English… After playing stupid for a couple minutes more, the price goes down to 120¥, still 20¥ over our goal, but good enough. Tonight we’ll sleep in a three star hotel!
We go for a walk around Xiangcheng, which has little charm but some old traditional houses worth seeing. The houses don’t have straight walls but have a trapezoidal shape. Roofs and windows are also heavily decorated with painted wood. As in Litang, the police presence is very strong here.
At the Northern end of the “new” city, the old village spreads in the valley.
One nice thing about Xiangcheng is that it’s warm! We walk around with our jacket open, and can stay seated on the main square to watch people dance even after sunset without freezing. This is our last day in Sichuan, so we decide for Sichuanese food for dinner, various kinds of spicy noodles.
We retire in our hotel room, which, for once, has a working shower with hot water! No need for a heating blanket tonight, tomorrow morning we’re heading to Shangri-La… Where the weather forecast tells us it’s snowing!
#34 Litang, day 2
Mon Mar 4, 2019 04:20 GMT
The weather forecast tells us that temperatures today will oscillate between -10 and -14°C… Luckily there’s no wind at all so with proper clothing it’s actually nice outside. Today we plan to visit Litang’s monastery, as well as to see more of the old town.
The monastery is slightly North of the city, it seems we get there around prayer time. The building is quite impressive, and the paintings inside really beautiful. As usual, taking photos inside the main room is not allowed, so you’ll just have to believe us :-)
We climb on the hill behind the monastery to get a better view of the city, the wind is much stronger there!
While climbing down towards the old village, we cross a bridge over the almost frozen river. Some women are washing clothes in it, I don’t want to imagine how cold their hands are… Houses in the old town are mostly made of mud and straw, and all have the same decorated roofs and windows.
It seems to be a local custom to dry yak dung on the walls, before using it as fuel.
We come back to the part of the historical town hosting the birth houses of various living Buddhas and of the seventh and tenth Dalaï Lama. Almost all are closed (but are still beautiful from the outside), but we’re lucky and a group of people is entering the house where the Lama was born right as we pass in front of it. We follow the group, a police officer (who’s also apparently the guide?) makes us enter the basement of the house and closes the door.
The basement is full of items having belonged to the Lama, and everyone gets in a religious frenzy and starts turning (clockwise, as always) around the room, hands clasped in praying position. Not really knowing what to do, we turn with them. Everyone has a bunch of one yuan bills in their hand, and shoves a bill inside every item on display. There are bills between the wooden beams of the roof, inside the bowls, in the nostrils of a yak skull… People also collect dust off the items and shove it in their ear, or smear it on their forefront. After a while, the police guide-officer opens a second room, where we all have to enter, and off we are to a second round of turning and shoving bills everywhere. We visit the four rooms of the house this way, and finally come back to daylight and let the group of fanatics go back to their bus. We’re a bit perplexed, but happy that we could see the house!
We wander a bit more in the streets of the center, and can’t help noticing how many policemen there are on the streets: at almost every corner there’ll be a table with four or five officers around trying to warm up, there are police cars patrolling in the streets, and even army trucks passing by sometimes. We’ve read that there’s a strong police presence (and sometimes even a foreigner ban) during Tibetan festivals, but we don’t really if there was one while we were in Litang…
We decide we’d like to spend the afternoon reading and relaxing a bit, but that’d be better in a warm place, and we don’t feel like going under the blanket at 4pm already. Ideally we’d find a Tibetan tea house where we could sit for a while. Luckily we find a place with heating (yes, heating!), it’s so warm inside we can be take off our jacket and our sweater! The place looks like what a Turkish cafe would look like back at home in Berlin, but is full of monks chatting on the pillows around a pot of tea. It’s so nice to be warm that we’ll stay for dinner there before going back to the hotel. Tip for the frozen traveler in Litang: look for a black sign on first floor, on the west side of Ji Xiang Jie street announcing “Tibeta meals” (the “n” got lost somewhere).
Back at the hotel, we want to take a shower, but the shower malediction keeps following us: there’s no hot water, the cold temperatures apparently destroyed our heater… Luckily we get access to another room (we’re the only guests in the hotel anyway), with a working heater. This is our last night in Litang, tomorrow we begin the road towards Yunnan, where we hope the weather to be warmer!
#33 Litang, day 1
Mon Mar 4, 2019 00:53 GMT
We take a bus early in the morning to Litang, a 50 000 people city further inside Sichuanese Tibet. Litang is renowned as the birth place of two Dalaï Lamas, and is supposed to be quite touristy in some aspects but still worth seeing…
The road taking us there is for the first part the same that we took to come back from our Minyak Gongga Trek: the bus climbs back all the way to the snowy pass on the plateau. The driver stops to chain the tires just in case.
It takes a good seven hours to reach Litang, the whole road goes through the plateau above 4000m high. Up there we’re surrounded by mountains, snow and yaks. The scenery is pretty stunning, the bus trip itself actually makes it worth going to Litang!
Because this is Tibet, there are more police control, we have to go through one a bit before arriving. Those controls cause big traffic jams, and make bus schedules a bit unpredictable… In our case we’re quite lucky and we only have to wait for half an hour. We get down the bus, Chinese people get a quick check with their contactless ID card but we have to go to the office to get our passports checked. I’m still wondering if there’s an actual procedure for checking passports, since every time we get checked the officer seems a bit at loss… He’ll usually go through all the pages with a puzzled look, stare at the front page for a long time, take a picture of it and let us go.
This time, the officer also asks us for a hotel booking in Litang. We of course don’t have a hotel booked, we always find one on arrival, but we give a name out of the travel guide. We’ll figure out later that this hotel is closed… The officer also takes our Chinese phone number “in case we need to be reached”, and finally lets us go.
We get into Litang in the early afternoon, on the way from the bus station to the center almost all shops are closed, we start to worry that being in low season Litang is going to be a dead city… In the center where the bus drops us around 50% of the shops are closed as well, but we end up finding a hotel open, which rivals in bad taste with the hotel we had at the the end of our trek, but which fits our budget and promises hot water 24⁄7.
There’s as usual no heating in the hotel, but there are heating blankets. At almost 4000m high, Litang is one of the highest inhabited places in China (or in the world?). This also means that it’s pretty cold in winter, with sometimes several days in a row without positive temperatures… It turns out staying outside in the sun is actually quite nice, and the weather is mostly sunny. If there’s wind or when the sun goes away, you should run and hide under your blanket…
We go for a walk in the city, with 50 000 inhabitants Litang is pretty small and everything can be done on foot. We walk along the main street towards the White Temple to the west, the street is actually quite lively despite the many closed shops. Litang feels distinctly more Tibetan than Kangding, from the people, the architecture and the many shops selling yak butter and praying items. People in the street are very welcoming, and we get greeted by both young and old people much more often than we’ve been so far. We also cross lots of monks and people praying in the street while walking. Tibetan people are much taller than in the rest of China. A lot of them looks like cowboys, it’s really funny.
The White Temple is also pretty lively as we get there, with many people turning the prayer wheels around the large white stuppa or the gigantic prayer wheel in the building nearby.
Prayer wheels have a prayer written on them, turning the wheel disperses the prayer in the wind and had the same effect as reciting it. Buddhists have just made praying much more efficient!
We continue our walk in the historical part of the town, which looks indeed quite touristy, but is empty at the time we’re there. Houses here have a very characteristic architecture with large painted window frames that we’ll see again in many other Tibetan villages later.
Litang is surrounded by mountains, in every direction where you look.
The sun sets as we eat our dumpling soup, we go hide under the blankets in our hotel room. A few minutes after, the light burns… It’s not even 8pm so we don’t feel like sleeping yet, the hotel staff comes and changes it “Chinese style”.
After around one hour and watching various stunts on a chair, we have light again!
#32 Rest day in Kangding
Sun Mar 3, 2019 11:46 GMT
We’re spending a quiet day in Kangding, after arriving from the trek, to relax a bit. We spend some time to wash our clothes (figuring out at the same time that the washing machine is fully manual and cannot tumble dry), sort out the pictures of the trek, and read a bit about our next destinations.
For lunch, we check out the Malaya restaurant, which cooks traditional Tibetan dishes. We try some boiled yak with mashed potatoes, which actually tastes mostly like beef…
In the afternoon we try to visit the mosque but it seems to be closed, we end up visiting a monastery instead and wandering in the city. Almost all shops here have their name translated into English, with varying levels of sense.
We still haven’t tried two local specialties, yak butter tea and tsampa, a kind of roasted flower. We stop by a Tibetan place to fix this mistake and are quite pleasantly surprised, the yak butter tea tastes slightly salty and tsampa has a nutty taste. The combination of both is however so filling that we’ll skip dinner completely!
We spend a quiet evening by the stove in the hostel, tomorrow we have an early bus to Litang, an almost-holy city further inside Sichuanese Tibet. The alarm is set at 5:50, so we don’t go sleep late!
#31 Minyak Gongga Trail
Thu Feb 28, 2019 20:33 GMT
Today is a big day, we’re starting our six-day trek around Mont Gongga! We use the morning for our food shopping (18 instant noodle packs!) and to buy a thermos bottle, since temperatures where we’re going are going to be well below 0°C at night, and we don’t want all our water to become solid…
We leave around 2pm with a driver who’ll take us to Laoyulin, the beginning of the trek. The first twenty minutes of driving are on a road, but we then continue on a track where the driver regularly has to get off the car to remove some rocks from the way.
We start hiking around 3pm, for our first day we only have to walk a few kilometers to the first camp site, at 3700m high.
Soon, we come across our first yak (finally, a yak!), who doesn’t seem to be very impressed by our plans.
The weather is nice, it takes us around three hours to reach the place where we’ll camp for the night. There are already some patches of snow now and then, but walking around them is easy. We’ll camp in grasslands similar to the ones we’ve hiked to the previous day, surrounded by mountains, yaks and horses.
I light up a fire while Maureen prepares the tent, even though it’s not super warm it’s still quite nice to stay outside. Our evening menu for tonight, and for all our dinners, is instant noodles. Note that this is actually not as monotonous as it seems, we’ve bought all kinds of different sorts!
We cook our noodles on the fire to save fuel, but as soon as the sun goes away behind the mountains the temperature drops sharply, we finish our dinner quickly and run to the tent, where we’ll need a bit of time to warm up… Lesson learned for the following days: set the camp before 5pm, and be ready to sleep when the sun goes away.
We wake up around 8am on day two, and the humidity inside the tent is frozen. Outside the tent, everything is frozen too…
Mornings will be the hardest part of the day for the rest of the trek: everything is cold when you wake up, getting dressed inside the tent is a gymnastic exercise because the tent is tiny, and leaving your warm sleeping bag to go outside in the cold and start packing everything just isn’t a very appealing perspective… Anyway, we wake up, cook some tea, and eat our breakfast. Breakfast menu for every day: Tibetan “pancakes” (a kind of thick and compact round wheat bread, good when warmed but hard to eat when cold), tea, bananas, and some milk drink.
We pack everything, and off we are for our second day, which will take us to our last camp before the highest pass of the trek, the Riwuqie Pass. The pass is 4900m high, and we’ll camp at 4300m high before ascending it the day after. Luckily for us, the sun appears around 10am and the temperature warms up significantly. We are walking in a beautiful valley with mountains all around us, and nobody else to be seen.
We only have to walk around eleven kilometers today, but at over 4000m high our pace is significantly slower, since we get out of breath much more easily… The path also does a lot of ups and downs, so we only reach our second camp around 4pm. We camp again in some grasslands surrounded by mountains, but this time with a pretty strong wind blowing.
In the background, we can see the mountains awaiting us, the Riwuqie Pass will be a bit further right of the snowy mountains. We find a cluster of rocks that we hope will shelter us a bit from the wind, and get in the tent directly. It’s cold enough outside the we won’t leave the tent before the following morning, we’ll cook and eat our noodles cramped inside, but warm!
We wake up after a not-so-good night on day three, the wind blowing in the tarp above our tent has been quite noisy the whole time. After the usual breakfast we start what’s going to be a hard day: we need to climb the pass at 4900m high, and get down as much as possible afterwards to avoid camping too high again. We start hiking a bit after 9am.
At this altitude, breathing becomes a conscious thing: you need to actively breath more than you’d usually do, because oxygen is rarer, and you also need to force yourself to walk slower than you usually would. Failing to do so results at best in your getting of breath quickly, or at worst in headache and nausea… We progress slowly but surely, although as we near the pass each step feels like we’re carrying a yak on our shoulders!
We reach the pass around 2pm, the last part is covered in snow but practicable with normal shoes, which matches the information we had before starting the trek. We’re tired, but happy, we’ve made it! The wind up there is blowing like mad, we take a quick picture and start our descent on the other side.
There is luckily no snow on the other side, so we can walk much faster. After a quick lunch break we follow our path down the valley. We set the camp around 4pm a bit above 4000m high, we’d have wished to camp lower but the path goes down really slowly, and we don’t feel like walking more kilometers today. The sky is super clear and the temperature pretty warm, we sit a bit outside before getting in the tent for the evening.
This time, we’ve set the tarp that usually covers our tent entirely a bit differently: to make it easier to enter and leave the tent, we’ve pulled it a bit back so that the doors are not covered. But when we open the door at night to go brush our teeth, after dining in the tent again because of the the cold, a pack of snow pours inside… Oh well, we go outside, re-set up the tarp to cover the tent entirely, clean the snow that fell inside the tent, brush our teeth and, finally, go to sleep!
The landscape as we wake up on day four is, as expected, rather white.
It’s also, as expected, rather cold outside… We woke up a bit later today to give us some rest, so the sun starts warming us around the time we start hiking.
The aim for today is to get closer to our next milestone, the Gongga Monastery. We know we won’t reach it in a day, but we want to get close enough to it that we’ll only have to walk half a day to reach it the day after.
We follow the path down the valley, and after a while we meet the first humans since we’ve started this trek!
A family is living in a small house, probably herding yaks. The mother points us the way to the path across the river, her daughter waves to us as we leave.
At some point we hear some yelling and whistling on the other flank of the valley, a couple of men on horses are leading a herd of yaks across the mountain.
This is the first time that we see yaks being used, so far we’ve only seen them roaming freely in the mountains. Most of them are, however, marked with a string of color attached to their body, probably to signal their owner.
The path continues across grasslands and rivers, some of the rivers are still completely frozen.
Even though the path is almost flat in average, it is still full of steep ups and downs, which makes us progress more slowly, and get tired more quickly! The landscape continues to change as we progress, we’re now in a forest that, from the kind of trees, could very well be anywhere in Europe. After walking 15km, we decide to set the camp: we’re now less than 10km away from the monastery, and our legs have had enough! We’re now at 3700m high, the weather is much warmer than the previous evening. For the first time in the past days, we can take the time to sit outside after pitching the tent, making a fire and staying next to it for a while, only going in the tent to sleep.
One sad part of this trek is the amount of waste we see along the way: every time there’s a place where human stay, there’s basically a small dump. We’ve already observed that Chinese people are not really educated when it comes to throwing waste in the nature (or basically as soon as there no “no littering” sign and a camera to watch you), this trek unfortunately confirms it…
We wake up early on day five, as we want to get to the monastery around lunch time to have some time to rest in the afternoon. The 10km separating us from the monastery prove, again, to be not so flat as expected, but we reach the road leading to it around noon. We can spot more and more prayer flags as we approach the monastery, there are also various altars or tombs on the way.
Soon, the buildings of the monastery appear. Behind them, Mount Gongga is partially hidden in the clouds, its peak over 7500m high.
We’ll never get to see the peak, it seems the clouds somehow get caught by the mountain…
The monastery has various rooms to rent, used both by pilgrims and mountaineers. At this time of the year though, we seem to be the only guests. We go for a little walk around the monastery, and sit in the grass to have lunch. A family is visiting the monastery, some kids come around and ask for a picture with Maureen.
The building where we’re staying, along with the monk and the two men helping with the maintenance, is separate from the monastery itself.
There are some “toilets” nearby, actually a building attached to the slope of the mountain with a hole in the floor…
We sit in the yard of our building to be sheltered from the wind and read a bit, after a while some snowflakes start falling from the sky. It’s really nice and quiet, but it starts to be a bit cold, we find a metal pot where to put hot coals and go ask the monk to fill it. The monk and the two people in charge spend most of the afternoon in a small, dark room, but they have a wood stove there! The rooms have no heating nor electric heating blankets, but it’s ok to stay there when sitting next to the hot coals.
In the evening we decide to ask the monk if we can use their stove to cook our dinner, which also makes a good excuse to see how they spend their time, and to sit in a warm place. We have bought before leaving some kind of rice mixed with various nuts and peas, which, according to the guy in the supermarket (via automated translation), “cooks thoroughly” (which we assumed meant “cooks quickly”). It turns out either the rice or the translation was not fully correct, we spend almost an hour trying to cook the mixture, and have to add water many times so that the whole thing doesn’t burn completely… The monk and the two others sit quietly around the stove, watching a DVD of traditional Tibetan dances (which from our perspective looks like an endless loop of people crying and dragging their feet on the floor). When we get out of the room, we realize there’s still daylight outside and a nice sunset light on Mount Gongga, which unfortunately still has its cloudy hat on…
We go to bed early, a long day awaits us tomorrow: we have to walk down to 3300m high before climbing back up to the Tsimei pass at 4600m high, and down again to Shangmuju at 3700m high, for a total of around 30km… Basically twice as many kilometers as our biggest day so far.
We wake up before sunrise on day six, we want to leave early to reach our destination before sunset. Mount Gongga still has its head in the clouds as we say goodbye to the monastery and begin our descent. We reach the village of Tsimei at 3400m high around 10am, from here the ascent to the pass begins. Tsimei is also the first village on a road, which means there’s a chance of hitch hiking to Shangmuju. We decide however that we want to do the climb on foot, and halfway up leave the road for a footpath. The footpath saves us 4km, but it also means you have to climb 600m in 3km instead of 7! The views from the footpath are however much nicer than from the road.
The last kilometer of the path before rejoining the road at 4500m high is the hardest, very steep laces that seem to never end. We have again to focus on our breathing and find a slow, regular rhythm for our steps.
We reach the pass around 3pm, that was our last milestone before our final descent on Shangmuju!
The landscape at the pass and below it is very bare, there are almost no trees and a cold, snowy wind is blowing in our faces. It will be a long, monotonous 11km walk to finally reach Shangmuju. The very few cars which passed us where full, no chance of short circuiting this part with hitch hiking…
We reach Shangmuju a bit after 4pm, we know of an option to get back directly to Kangding with a private driver, but at 700¥ (almost 90€), it doesn’t come cheap. We want instead to get a ride back to the larger road, and from there get a regular bus back to Kangding.
The village of Shangmuju itself is just a couple of houses built in traditional style, with yaks roaming in the streets.
We find someone willing to take us to the village on the large road for 150¥, but the man tells us that we have to wait a bit before, and makes us sit together with the rest of the village in a hangar, where Buddhist monks are leading a ceremony. We’ll never know exactly what it was about, but it involved lots of chanting, blowing in horns, burning wood and various objects and drum banging.
At some point our driver is ready, and off we are, after honking some more yaks out of the road.
We get to the village around 6pm, the last bus to Kangding is apparently already gone (or are there actually buses to Kangding? We’ll never know), we’ll have to sleep here. The village has only around ten houses but three (closed) hotels, a man comes and opens the door of one of them for us. The room probably gets the record of bad taste compared to everything we’ve seen so far, but the mattress is good, and there is a bathroom with a water heater. We turn it on, and relax a bit while the water is heating.
After eating our noodles (in the room, there was no restaurant anyway), the water is hot, it’s finally shower time, after six days! We turn the tap and… Nothing. No water in the shower, no water in the sink, nothing. We have a tank full of hot water, but there’s no way to use it. We go knock at the door of the hotel owner, who’s away so we end up in the living room of his parents, trying to explain our situation. This is Tibet, so older people don’t read Mandarin (if they read at all), and Google Translate can’t do Tibetan. Luckily one of the kids in the room is young enough to speak Mandarin and just old enough to read and write it, so we learn that it’s late, and that the water pipes are frozen. There’s basically no water in the whole village, and nobody knows when it’ll come back… This is a bit of a let down moment, we can’t even flush the toilet anymore… Oh well, we’ll go to bed with no shower one more night.
We get woken up a bit before 7am on day seven by someone banging on our door. We had planned to get up early anyway (but not that early) to catch a hypothetical bus to Kangding, but it takes us a few moments to understand what’s happening, and what the guy wants. He’s apparently trying to communicate to us that transportation to Kangding will soon arrive, so we dress up quickly and get out in the night. The guy has disappeared in the meanwhile, we’re not really sure of what’s happening, or what’s supposed to happen. A first bus comes, the guy reappears out of nowhere and stops it, it turns out it only goes to Chengdu. The guy then explains us (in “sign language”) that there’s no large bus to Kangding, only small buses or cars. He tells us to wait on the side of the road, and leaves in another car… After a while, a car comes by and stops, it goes to Kangding, and is OK to get us there for 100¥, perfect! It turns out that “public transportation” in the region mostly consists of car sharing, as there are only very few fixed bus lines. The drive back to Kangding takes almost four hours, as we have to go through a pass (again) at 4400m high. The road is snowy, and we have to stop to equip the wheels with chains.
We finally get to Kangding in the early afternoon, bid farewell to our driver, and go back to our hostel where, finally, we can shower. This marks the end of the trek for us, it’s been an intense, magical week!
#30 Hiking in Kangding
Fri Feb 22, 2019 12:46 GMT
For our first day in Kangding we hike up to the grasslands, a meadow 3000m high overlooking the city where yaks probably graze in summer (we couldn’t see any). Kangding is in a narrow valley, surrounded by mountains.
It’s quite chilly in the morning, but as the sun rises the temperature becomes very pleasant. The trail climbs steeply between pine trees, we pass some graves and some stuppas decorated with prayer flags.
After our lunch break and a little nap on the grasslands, we hike a bit further all the way up to 3700m high. The aim of today was to get used to the altitude here, and to put our legs back in shape, I think we reached our objective!
All around us, we can see white peaks over 5000m high.
Back at the hostel we finish the preparations for the trek we’re starting tomorrow, seven or eight days through a valley to reach the Gongga monastery. We’ll be without internet connectivity for this time, so expect a little break in the posts!
#29 Chengdu to Kangding
Thu Feb 21, 2019 00:04 GMT
Pretty uneventful day today, we spend the morning waiting for shoe laces, doing some more research about Kangding and the hiking opportunities around, and for lunch have what is probably the biggest and spiciest plate of noodles we’ve had so far!
In the afternoon we catch our bus to Kangding, which we reach around 9pm (without any laces). We decided to go to a hostel this time, so that we can ask more information about hiking routes to the staff. The one we picked has no heating, but a nice ambiance, and the staff is really helpful (the other one is anyway closed for winter). Tomorrow we’ll try to hike for a few hours up in the grasslands overlooking the city, and get used to the altitude!
#28 Chengdu, day 6
Wed Feb 20, 2019 23:41 GMT
The shoe laces we ordered online still haven’t arrived… We decide to spend one more day in Chengdu, where it’s also easier for us to sit and do some planning for the rest of the trip. After spending the morning gathering some information about Yunnan, we take a bus to Kuanzhaixiangzi alley, a group of streets rebuilt in Qing dynasty style (lots of things here had to be rebuilt after the huge earthquake that hit Sichuan some ten years ago). The streets are packed with people and most shops are really touristy, but some do have really nice items on display, and the architecture is quite beautiful.
We also resolve the mystery of some rice balls stands we had seen in other places, with a large membrane in the center. What happens is that the cook rolls a rice ball and throws it against the membrane, where it bounces before landing on a plate of sesame. The “dong” made by the rice ball against the membrane attracts the customers.
After having pondered going to Yunnan first and then only exploring the West of Sichuan, we backtracked and decided to go to Kangding first. Trains to Kunming in Yunnan were all booked until many days later, and we didn’t want to stay in Chengdu that long. Unlike with trains, nothing with buses is centralized in China: one first has to find which of the many bus stations has routes to the desired destination (there can be more than one) and then head there to find out the schedule a buy the tickets. We get our tickets to Kangding for the following day and head home. For our last evening in Chengdu, we have two traditional dishes, “double cooked pork” (the name says it all, it makes the meat very tender) and “mapo dou fu” (tofu in spicy sauce). We had actually has those at the farm already, but we didn’t know the names!
#27 Chengdu, day 5
Wed Feb 20, 2019 22:25 GMT
One thing we haven’t mentioned about Chengdu is that a lot of things here revolve about pandas. Actually, pretty much everything here revolves around pandas. No matter what it is, there will be a panda on logos, posters, in the name… People follow this trend as well, lots of people in the street wear panda hats, panda jackets, panda headbands, the list doesn’t end. The reason for this is that Chengdu has a research center focusing on panda preservation (there’s also another one close to Dujiangyang), where people can go and see them. Pandas are a huge touristic draw for the city, and are actually part of its identity.
We were actually not so sure about going to see the pandas in the beginning, being a bit afraid of ending up in a sad zoo with concrete cages or a Disney theme park. But then the panda base in Chengdu seemed to be a bit better, and we felt we couldn’t really miss the occasion to see live pandas… So off we went, early in the morning to avoid the crowds and see the pandas before they fall asleep for the rest of the day. We arrived at opening time, which is also the time pandas get fed. Pandas eat in average a quarter of their mass in bamboo everyday, which takes them a lot of time, since they need to grab each branch one by one peel them and chew it slowly… We arrived around the first enclosure and faced our first panda, quietly seated on its ass, chewing his bamboo branch.
Those animals really look like toys, if it hadn’t been moving we’d actually have believed we were looking at a fake panda… Everything we learn about pandas during the day through the signs and videos makes us wonder how this species survived so long: they need hours to feed themselves, their babies don’t open their eyes before they’re around two months old, and they don’t start to walk until much later. On top of this, pandas give birth only once every three or four years in the nature… Still, they’re insanely cute!
But the panda base doesn’t only have giant pandas! It also has red pandas, which are much smaller and the same color as a fox, but still cute and furry.
After checking every single corner of the park, we resign ourselves to bid the pandas goodbye and to end back to the center. We go visit the Wenshu temple, apparently the biggest and best preserved in Chengdu. The streets around the temple have been rebuilt in ancient style, which looks a bit fake but still pretty.
In the evening we have dinner at home and cook a Spanish tortilla for Mitchell and us, our first “western” meal of the trip!
#26 Chengdu, day 4
Tue Feb 19, 2019 23:26 GMT
Today, we’re spending the whole day out visiting the irrigation system of Dujiangyang. Today, it’s raining and 4°C… Oh well, we still wake up at seven to go catch our train to the park where Li Bang designed a very long time ago the irrigation system to channel the water around Chengdu to the city. The current Chengdu’s irrigation still uses the same infrastructure, which allowed Sichuan to become one of the most fertile regions of China.
The arrival at the park scares us a bit, it looks like the weather didn’t deter hordes of Chinese to come and visit the park, luckily once inside there’s mostly enough space that the amount of visitors is not an issue…
The first part of the park is in the valley and has nice gardens and old buildings, the second part across the river is on the flank of a hill from where one gets (through the fog) a good view of the water. There’s also a couple of temples, and various towers.
The “Chinese touch” are the mechanical stairs to reach one of the towers a bit higher on the hill, cleverly concealed under a series of roofs…
We skip the mechanical stairs and use the good old stone ones to reach it, before going down and visiting the main temple at the other entrance of the park.
The rest of the “old” village of Dujiangyang (which is separate from the actual city) is completely rebuilt and made almost only of tourist shops. We manage to find a simpler restaurant in a side alley next to a mosque, interestingly there seems to be a larger Muslim community around here. The restaurant has a bucket of hot coals to warm you up while waiting for your dish, which is really nice!
Back at the train station we figure out here are only ticket vending machines but no ticket counter, which means no ticket for us, as a Chinese ID card is required to operate the machines… Oh well, we walk the two kilometers to the bus station and get a bus from there, at least there was an alternative way to come back home!
#25 Wooops, missing posts
Tue Feb 19, 2019 23:11 GMT
Maureen just noticed I had left some posts marked as “drafts”, which means they were hidden from this website… They’re now online! The two posts are #16 and #17, telling the end of our trip in the Miao villages. Happy reading!
#24 Chengdu, day 3
Tue Feb 19, 2019 20:07 GMT
We wake up late on Saturday, and head to the center in the area of the Daci monastery. The monastery is, weirdly, surrounded by a large commercial zone full of luxury shops. The monastery itself is however very quiet. On our way, we pass by a couple of small streets with a market, which reminds us more of small villages we crossed earlier in our trip than of the modern city that Chengdu is…
Inside some buildings, there is the possibility to leave a prayer on a piece of paper and, against a fee, stick it under one of the many Buddha statues on the wall.
The temple is quite large, with halls honoring many different gods and goddesses. There’s also a teahouse inside, Chengdu is actually know for its many teahouses.
We walk afterwards to Tianfu square, the main square in Chengdu. The square is surrounded by the massive museum of science and technology, and by the not less massive (but much more modern looking) Chengdu museum. A huge statue of Mao greets the crowds on the square.
We decide to go visit the Chengdu museum (free entrance!), which presents a timeline of the life in Sichuan on its first floors from the early time to the communist revolution, and and exhibition about puppetry in China on the last floor. Puppets in China take many forms and sizes, from small paper puppets used for shadow theater to human size puppets used in choreographies. The amount of details in the puppets, especially the paper ones, is quite stunning!
We follow our museum visit with a walk in People’s Park, a central park in Chengdu. People gather there to wander around, to dance, to do tai shi or simply to chat around a cup of tea in one of the tea houses. It’s already a bit late when we get in the park so many people are leaving the tea house, but we still get a table and two cups of tea in the corner with lights. Next to the regular waiters, ear cleaned are operating: for around 20¥ you can get your ears cleaned by a man equipped with cotton balls and a whole set of instruments, which to us looks really scary. The people next to us seem to be braver, and the whole family gets their ears thoroughly cleaned. The cleaning is followed by a “massage” including some cracking of the neck and shaking of the arms, which looks at least as scary as the cleaning instruments!
In the evening we go check the “bar street” of Chengdu, which we suspect to be a bit of a tourist trap be to be fun anyway. We walk along the river all the way to a historical bridge, on the opposite side we hear loud music and see lights glowing all over.
We end up going to the Wow bar, after reading that they offer a free beer with the first order… This is not exactly the kind of bar we’d visit at home, Shakira is playing at full volume and the crowd mostly around eighteen years old, but we get a “foreigner’s discount” and some dice to play, so everything’s fine!
#23 Chengdu, days 1 and 2
Sat Feb 16, 2019 19:22 GMT
We leave the farm in the morning after bidding farewell to Lin, Linxi and Lin’s mother (and the small dogs). The farm got us a taxi until Mianyang, from where we get a train to Chengdu. The train is packed, and we only manage to get a ticket with no seat assigned, so we’ll stand with many other people in the alley. The picture below gives an idea of the amount of people boarding the train at the same time as us…
We arrive in Chengdu in the afternoon and meet Mitchell, who’ll host us for some days. Our first evening is pretty quiet, we just go for a walk and come back at home later in the evening to chat around some beers with Mitchell.
Our second day begins with a quest: my shoe laces are almost completely broken, so we need to find some new ones rather soon, especially since Sichuan is a region with many trekking opportunities. Luckily, Chengdu is a large city, it’s actually the first where we see so many western shops: we search for laces in Decathlon and Auchan, and Ikea is around the corner.
We get no luck though, and head towards the center to walk around the Tibetan district. The region of Sichuan has absorbed large chunks of Tibet, probably as part of China’s efforts to make it completely Chinese, there’s as a result a large Tibetan community in Chengdu. We also pass by several outdoor shops on the way, unfortunately none of them has shoe laces… The Tibetan district is full of shops selling buddhist statues, monk clothes and various religious accessories.
We head afterwards to the Du Fu Cottage park, a park dedicated to the poet Du Fu who lived there for a while. The park is nicely arranged and quite relaxing, cherry trees are blooming already and there are poems (we suppose) displayed all around. Chengdu is quite green compared to the other cities we’ve visited so far, even though when you come back to the streets the super wide roads and the many highways stacked on top of each other remind you that 15 million people are living here!
In the evening we meet Mitchell and go eat one of the most famous dishes of Sichuan, hot pot. The boiling broth where you dip the ingredients is split in two, the center part has no hot peppers, while the outer one is much more spicy. We’re not sure of what exactly we’re cooking and eating, but we like it!
Mitchell takes us afterwards to a jam session in the “Jah” bar nearby, this is actually the first time we go to a bar in our trip! The ambiance there is super laid back, and the audience is probably around 50% made of expats. The level of people playing is pretty good, it actually feels great to have, for a few hours, a style of life like the one we’re used to back in Berlin!
#22 Visiting the pigs
Sat Feb 16, 2019 18:48 GMT
This is almost the end of our stay at the farm, today Lin takes us to visit the pig farm, the biogas installation and the composting factory. The free range pigs are no more after the spring festival, but there are still around two thousand pigs raised in more a conventional way. Some buildings host the sows about to give birth, some other host the pigs until they’re around two months old, and the rest of the buildings host adult pigs until they’re around six months old, after which they are sold.
The solid manure of the pigs is used for compost, while the liquid manure goes into a reservoir. The bacterias present in the liquid manure will produce methane gas, which is collected and used as cooking gas in the kitchen. The remainder of the liquid manure can then be used as a fertilizer for plants, so 100% of the pig manure is reused on the farm.
The composting factory of the farm is using top notch equipment, but our resident expert Ms. Burkmann tells us that their compost is mouldy and should be mixed more often.
For our last evening, we go to the movies with some family members. The movie is supposed to have English subtitles (we wonder why), but it turns out it actually hasn’t (too bad!). As it’s a pretty simple comedy, we manage to understand most of the story anyway. It is quite amusing to see a movie openly making fun of typical US cliches and painting Americans as arrogant and dumb (although the country they make fun of is officially “The United States of Harmonica”).
We’ll be leaving tomorrow for Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, where we’ll spend a couple of days. We’ve heard lots of good things about that city, so we’re curious to see how life is there!
#21 Mapping Walden Farm
Tue Feb 12, 2019 22:52 GMT
We’ve spent the past days working on our map, and some aspects of mapping are actually harder that they seemed at first!
The Walden Farm is split across four areas, we’re focusing on areas 1 and 2 since the other ones are mostly fields, and nobody except the workers need to go there. In contrast, area 1 has the two guest houses as well as the volunteers, and area 2 will be used soon for educational purposes.
Mapping area 1 turned out to be not so complicated: Lin had already given us an aerial view which, while not perfect, was good enough for the precision we wanted to achieve (around 5m, which is the best our mobile phone GPS can do). After gathering the positions of various landmarks, we could georeference the picture (assign GPS coordinates to it) and align it correctly. From there, creating the map is just a matter of drawing each road, lake, building etc. on the computer from the picture.
For area 2, we had nothing: no previous map, no aerial picture. The weather was cloudy the first days and did not lend itself to flying a drone. We started with biking along all the roads in the area with our GPS recording our position continuously. After two and a half hours of riding, we had collected a number of traces, which we could import on our map and connect to the existing points we had. That gave us the roads, but gathering traces for every lake and building was out of question, this would have taken forever!
Luckily, yesterday was sunnier and Lin took some time to fly his drone and gather some pictures. The drone flies at 500m high and records its GPS position and orientation in each picture, which makes stitching them back into a unified view significantly easier.
After a bit of fighting with various image stitching programs we had our aerial view of area 2, and the map could go forward. We’re quite happy with the final result, even though it definitely looks weird to have an area with such a complete map when the rest of the region is not mapped at all!
#20 Our daily life at the farm
Sat Feb 9, 2019 20:56 GMT
Some days have passed since the spring festival celebrations, and we’ve now started to actually work on our volunteering project. Interestingly, there’s no map of the farm, and even the surroundings are very poorly mapped. The “map” basically lives in the owners heads. We decided to create a map of the farm and to publish it on OpenStreetMap, a community built mapping project similar to what Wikipedia is for encyclopedias. Lin gave us some aerial photography he had, and we’re also walking around with GPS receivers to collect data. The results should appear in the coming days on the map next to this post!
Life here follows a very regular schedule: breakfast at 08:45 followed by some work, lunch at noon, some more work, dinner at 18:30. We usually spend the evenings in the “wooden house” (soon to appear on the map), which is quite cosy, and, more importantly, has heating! Temperatures here are back under 10° after a few days of sun… As volunteers we are supposed to work around 5 hours per day, in practice everything’s really flexible. Right now we’re working more because we’re excited to see the map progressing, but nobody will say anything if we decide to take more time for our own things in the next days.
A few days ago we had the occasion to go for a small walk with Linxi to visit the chickens and the goats. Chickens here are free range and have pretty good living conditions, they have lots of space to roam around and eat only grains and plants.
The species of chickens here lay eggs that have a blueish tint, almost turquoise. We always thought when seeing blue eggs on a market that they were prepared in vinegar or something similar, but they’re actually regular ones!
The goats also seem to lead a pretty happy life (well, before ending in someone’s plate).
Twice already we had a karaoke evening around the fire, once with the family and once with a group of Chinese people celebrating the spring festival here. Our biggest success as foreigners singing ends up being the Macarena (along with its dance)… I guess some songs never die.
#19 New year's eve in Walden Farm
Tue Feb 5, 2019 13:36 GMT
Today is the last day of the lunar year, everyone is preparing for the upcoming year: everything needs to be cleaned, dishes need to be cooked, the place where we’ll spend the evening needs to be prepared…
We help with cleaning in the morning, and join everyone for a big lunch in the canteen. The main meal here on new year’s eve is lunch, with over 10 different dishes on the table, and lots of bottles of baijiu, a distilled grain alcohol over 50% strong (baijiu is sometimes also known as the Chinese vodka).
Baijiu glasses are tiny, which is not necessarily a bad thing given how strong the drink is…
The cheering etiquette here is a bit different from the one near Kaili: you actually toast, so before drinking you pronounce a few words to either thank someone, ask for apologies about some past problem, etc. When cheering, it’s better to hold your glass below the one of the other person, as a mark of respect and modesty. Because both persons try to get below the other, this is actually more complicated than it seems!
We spend the afternoon relaxing on the grass outside the canteen, chatting and playing cards with the other volunteers.
Later in the afternoon we have to prepare dumplings for the evening meal. The cook already prepared the fillings, so we only have to knead the dough and shape the dumplings, which is actually the most time consuming part. Because they will be cooked in hot water, dumplings have to be tightly sealed, else they’ll just explode in the water…
After dining with the dumplings and the heaps of food remaining from the lunch we gather around a bonfire, where a screen has been installed. Chinese people here like to watch the new year gala on TV while waiting for midnight. It’s barely 8pm as we gather, so we have a solid four hours of Chinese TV show in front of us… The aim of the gala is manifold: it has to represent all regions of the country (so various shows illustrate the culture of each region), it has to educate/make people think on current issues, which is done through small funny theatre works, and finally it has to glorify the country and the achievements of 2018. We get to see Chinese opera shows of different styles, various dance choreographies, a kung fu show from the Shaolin monks… And a bunch of cheesy singers. The theatre shows are apparently very entertaining, the Chinese people around us laugh a lot when watching them.
All around, firecrackers have started to be lit. The legend around Chinese New Year tells that in the old times, a monster would come at turning of every new year to devour the villagers and destroy the houses. The villagers would flee in the woods looking for shelter, and have to rebuild the village every time. One year, an old man came and told he’d stay in the village. The villagers left him and flew to the woods as usual. Meanwhile, the old man started attaching red strings and flags all around the buildings and to make lots of noise: he had found a way to scare the monster away. Since then, the red lamps and the firecrackers play this role, and ensure safety and prosperity for the upcoming year.
We wait until midnight to light ours, four big firework boxes and a lot of other firecrackers and flares. We stay a bit around the fire afterwards and help cleaning up, before going to sleep. Unlike in Europe, the high time here was really around noon, the ambiance in the evening, firecrackers excepted, was really quiet… We’ll hear other people lighting firecrackers pretty much the entire night, but it doesn’t prevent us from sleeping at all!
#18 Volunteering in Walden Farm
Mon Feb 4, 2019 11:47 GMT
We take a fast train in the morning to Chengdu, where we have a couple of hours layover before catching another train to Mianyang. As usual here, high speed train stations are massive, this one is a particularly good example, both for the outside appearance and the boarding hall.
We arrive in Chengdu around lunch time. Chengdu is the sixth biggest city in China with over 10 million people. It seems biking here is much more popular than any other city we’ve seen before, rental bikes are everywhere.
Sichuan food has the reputation of being really spicy, we’re a bit worried we’ll only be able to eat rice here… We order some dumplings and a noodle soup, it turns out the spiciness is not that bad: the peppers have a nice taste and don’t burn your mouth too much.
Chinese New Year is getting closer and closer, shops selling decorations and red envelopes for the “red packets”, the envelopes with money that get distributed by parents to children (as far as I understood) during the celebrations.
We go back to the train station to take our train to Mianyang, and from there take a bus to Jiuling where Linxi, one of the persons handling volunteers at the farm, pick us up.
The farm we’re volunteering at is called Walden Farm, it’s the biggest farm in the county: around 800 hectares, with a plan to expand to 2000 hectares in the coming years (as a comparison, over 95% of farms in France are smaller than 200 hectares). The farm’s main business is raising pigs, but they also have chickens and wineyard and produce some vegetables, mostly for self consumption. They have diversified their business in the last years, and now also operate two guest houses and some educational workshops for kids. Although the farm is huge, they do put some focus on sustainability and landscaping for three main reasons: building a sustainable ecosystem means the business itself is sustainable, being able to reduce dependencies on external resellers of critical resources protects you against price variations on the market, and finally having an “ecological” image and a nice landscape profits to both the hosting business and to the reputation of the products. There is a growing middle class in China that has the means to afford higher quality food, and a general distrust in product quality in China, as bribery is present in many places. Being able to invite people over (or at least to have a coherent story) helps a lot in building a trust relationship between the farm and its customers.
We arrive in the evening and have dinner in one of the guest houses, that is used for family gatherings during the Spring Festival (another name for the Chinese New Year). The living room is huge, decorated in a modern and elegant style, and two chefs are at work in the open kitchen to prepare all the dishes. The quantity of dishes on the table during a traditional dinner is impressive compared to a European table: we have around 8 different plates on the table, shared among everyone.
We sleep in a straw hut which does not exactly follow the same standards: no heating, no thermic insulation, at least we have heating mattresses to warm up the bed before sleeping!
Luckily the are some heated buildings where we can seat when we need to work inside. Our volunteering projects are not defined yet, and everyone at the farm is pretty busy with closing every matter before the new year, so we take the time to prepare a bit the next steps of our trip, fix some technical issues with the blog. We also help with general maintenance tasks around the farm.
In the coming days we’ll help prepare things for the new year ceremony and celebrate with the family and the other volunteers. Exciting times!
#17 Kaili to Guiyang
Thu Jan 31, 2019 08:50 GMT
The weather is a bit clearer as we wake up, and we realize our room actually has a pretty nice view!
We’ve decided to have breakfast at the place of the lady who helped us yesterday, but before we walk a bit around the village. Today is market day (or maybe it’s market day every day?), the central streets are full of stalls selling meat, veggies, spices, traditional clothes… We get to see many women wearing their traditional clothes, mostly recognizable to their hair. The meat stalls here are much more “real” than a butcher’s window in Europe, here you can really see that what you’re buying actually used to be a pig!
After a hearty plate of noodles, we’re ready to say goodbye to our “guardian angel” in Paiyang and to take our bus back to Kaili!
In Kaili it’s also market day. We still have a bit of time before our train leaves, so we explore that market as well… This is the first place where we see (what we assume to be) roasted dogs, next to other animals. The market here is much bigger and quite chaotic, since the streets being full with stalls and people doesn’t mean they’re forbidden to cars or scooters, who honk their way through the crowd. Dentists here are quite common, and have normal shops directly on the street, so you can get your teeth fixed the same way you’d have your hair cut…
We pass a square busy with people playing Chinese chess, and cards (cards apparently always for money).
Our train is to Guiyang, the place where we’ll start our trip to Chengdu, in the Sichuan region, where we’ll work for two weeks in a farm. Guiyang doesn’t seem to have much to see, so we’re just planning to have dinner there and find a hotel near the train station. The train we take to Guiyang is not a high speed train but a regular one, and the experience is quite different! The station is much smaller, and everything is more chaotic.
Inside the train people smoke, leave their litter behind them (a very efficient cleaning service is constantly passing in the alley) and carry in average a much larger amount of things. We still don’t see any live animals as that day in Guilin when Maureen was seating next to a lady holding a live chicken in her arms…
One thing which one can see everywhere in China are surveillance cameras. There are cameras in the streets, in the buses, in buildings… Even in Gupo park one could spot them along the trail to the top.
Tomorrow we’ll spend most of the day traveling by train first to Chengdu, then to Mianyang and finally to the farm next to Jiuling.
#16 Trekking the Miao villages, day 2
Wed Jan 30, 2019 17:11 GMT
We leave the hotel early after a quick breakfast in our room. After a bit of asking around, it appears that the first few kilometers of hiking would require us to enter Xijiang, which we’re still not willing to do. We instead hitch hike directly to the second village, Kaijue.
Kaijue is much smaller than Xijiang, so again we easily find a villager to tell us the way to the next village, Buzi.
From Buzi we reach Kongbai and then simply follow the valley. The setting is quite eerie, we’re alone in a green valley surrounded only by rice fields, the river and the ever present fog.
After a following a water canal, crossing a river and hiking up the other flank of the valley, we make it to Maliao. No matter how inclined or how hard to reach a terrain is, we can see rice fields literally everywhere. Small footpaths or stairs can be found all around to access them.
From Maliao we hike to Jiubai along the road.
We’re planning to either stay in Jiubai for the night renting a room in someone’s house or to reach Paiyang, the following village, and find a similar option there. Jiubai is really small, so we hitch hike the three remaining kilometers to Paiyang.
In Paiyang we ask a woman running a restaurant if there’s a hotel in town, she tells us of a place (“tells” here meaning a mix of half-nonsense Google translated sentences and finger pointing) where apparently we can rent rooms. We try and fail to find it, other villagers tell us there’s no hotel, so we go back to her asking for more details. She realizes we’ve reached the limit of our communication means, so she just leaves her shop and walks us directly to the place. The hotel is actually a family run restaurant with a room to rent upstairs. The room is spotless and the beds huge (yes, two beds again), so we gladly accept the offer! The house is not heated and it’s still cold and humid outside, people here use tables with a cloth around it and hot coals under so you can warm up your legs and hands while seating. We spend some time around the warming table, reading our books and writing this blog.
Around seven o’clock the mother brings dinner to the table, a stealing bowl full of veggies and meat pieces, a bit like the one we had for lunch the day before. The father has another guest tonight, so he opens a bottle of rice alcohol, of the same type we had in Kaili (it still tastes pretty bad). As far as we understand, the drinking etiquette here goes like this: you should always cheer with every other person drinking before drinking yourself, but cheering is silent (no “gambei” or anything). This implies that if a single person wants to drink, everyone drinks. A movie is running on TV as we eat, “The founding of an army”. Wikipedia tells us this movie was financed by the Chinese government to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the communist uprising. We watch it with a distracted eye, I still have to keep an eye on the table since missing a silent “cheers” would prevent the other people from drinking. At some point, a character appears on the screen, the father points at the TV and says “Mao Zedong”, we nod. Comically enough, the Mao in the movie seems to be 20cm taller than all other characters…
We spend the rest of the evening around the table, leaving to sleep a bit after 10pm, this is countryside life!
#15 Trekking the Miao villages, day 1
Wed Jan 30, 2019 15:28 GMT
We leave Kaili in the morning after doing a bit of food shopping, in case we have to camp. Our destination is Langde, a Miao village south of Kaili, one of the larger ones which doesn’t charge an entry fee (yet). We cross a landscape of green valleys dotted with rice fields to reach the village. Miao houses are traditionally made of wood and have tiled roofs. The tiles are much shorter than the ones we have in Europe, and are also of a much darker color, almost black. The whole is really beautiful!
Most villages’ main square is paved with stones in a circular pattern, the streets are paved with cobblestones as well. The weather is not at its best, but at least it’s not raining. We struggle a bit to find the beginning of the trail, there are no indications whatsoever so our only sources of information are our map and the local villagers. This works well in small villages where everyone knows the hiking trails but less so in larger villages with a touristic infrastructure, where people expect you to see the “scenic spots” and nothing else.
We manage to find some stairs to get to the river and a bridge to cross it to reach Wulee, a much smaller village. A local custom in Miao villages seems to be drying corns outside the houses.
People in the streets look at us with curious but kind faces. We ask a villager the way to Zhongzhai and he sends his son to show us the way through the rice fields.
We pass a couple of other villages, and stop around 2pm at a crossroads with a couple of houses for lunch. A common dish here apparently consists of having a large plate of broth with various things inside, which you pick into your bowl of rice after dipping them in chili sauce. The table of the restaurant includes a wood stove in the center, which serves both to cook the dish and to warm up the legs (the temperature outside is around 6°, and the weather is very humid).
We don’t really know where the trail goes, so we just hike along the road all the way to Xijiang. The rivers we see have a water which is almost turquoise, I guess there’s an algae or a mineral in the region which gives them this color.
Xijiang is the biggest Miao village in the region, and also the most touristy. Various people recommended us to skip it so we stop in the area before the paying zone, we’ve walked enough for today anyway and are quite tired. The outer areas of Xijiang are a bit surreal: we pass dozens of recently built, completely empty houses. Everything seems to be being prepared to welcome hundreds of new inhabitants (or tourists?). The mist has been getting thicker and thicker as we climbed up to Xijiang, this combined with all those empty houses creates a pretty weird ambiance…
The owner of the first hotel we enter tells us a room costs 180 yuans a night (around 22€), after we say our budget is 100 yuans he lowers the price right away. The entire city is empty anyway, I doubt anyone else was sleeping in the hotel that night. We get the best room we ever got so far, with air conditioning and a really nice shower! Once again we get two separate beds, we still haven’t managed to get a room with a single double bed… The beds here are really stiff, local mattresses are super thin which sometimes gives the impression of sleeting on a wooden plank.
In the evening we wander a bit in the area around the hotel, everything seems newly built and completely made up, it feels we’re visiting an not yet opened theme park in a fog so thick we can only see ten meters away…
After trying the local specialty in a restaurant nearby, a sour soup, we come back to the hotel for a well deserved sleep!
#14 Guilin to Kaili
Tue Jan 29, 2019 21:03 GMT
The region of Guilin is really rich in sights and would deserve a whole week to explore, unfortunately we’re a bit tight with our schedule since we already booked our train for the next stop, Kaili. We spend the morning walking through the city. Guilin is not unlike Zhaoqin with its central lake, but somehow the shore in Guilin feels more pleasant, maybe due to its less regular shape and to the many plants along it. Today is Sunday, many people take a walk around the lake, many dance, do tai shi…
In the afternoon we take our train to Kaili. Because the Chinese New Year is near, almost all trains are fully booked, which does not play very well with our habit of last minute planning. We managed to get a ticket to Kaili but without seats, so we have to seat on the floor of the platform between two wagons. Luckily, Chinese trains are really wide, so there’s enough space for everyone.
We decided to go hiking for the next days in the region of Kaili to discover its traditional villages from the Miao ethnic group. Kaili is a large industrial city and does not have much to offer in itself. We find our cheapest hotel to date, with also ends up being the worst: one of the windows has no glass, and it’s 5° outside…
We go food hunting in a street full of food stalls and end up seating with a group of Chinese eating grilled tofu and potato patties from a hot plate.
The three are sipping on a bottle of rice alcohol and are already pretty drunk when we arrive, they of course invite us to drink with them. Time and empty glasses go by and they keep trying to speak Chinese to us, probably hoping that we’ll suddenly learn the language that way :-) The experience is at the same time really fun, but a bit tiring after a while… We manage to dodge the invitations to go dancing in a club with them, and they finally stumble away, after insisting to pay for us (which we don’t manage to avoid).
Chinese people behaved basically in two ways with us so far: some get afraid of the language barrier and shut off completely, but most are quite patient and actually really friendly and helpful. Communicating through Google Translate is not always smooth, but we do usually manage to get what we need this way!
#13 Hezhou to Guilin
Tue Jan 29, 2019 17:46 GMT
We have the morning free in Hezhou before taking our bus to Guilin. Hezhou is the first place where we observe people carrying goods with a bamboo stick balancing two bags on their shoulder.
We’re also in a region hit by monsoon, so scooters are equipped to cope with sudden rain.
Today is Saturday, so the streets are livelier during the day compared to yesterday, a crew of open air hairdressers are operating near the river.
The bus to Guilin is supposed to take four hours, which must be a tight schedule because the bus driver drives like a madman for the entire trip, honking at every car he passes over, and he passes over a lot! The landscape is, unlike his driving style, quite relaxing, we go through many villages of the region and are always surrounded by the karstic peaks so characteristic of the region.
We arrive in Guilin in evening, the city is much larger than Hezhou at over 3.6 million inhabitants. Scooters here are everywhere: there are swarms of them on the road, but they also have dedicated “bike lanes”, and ride on the pedestrian crossings and on the sidewalks when they feel like it. Guilin is also a much more touristic place, many parks here charge a (hefty) entry fee. For the first time in the trip we go to a youth hostel, as we need a place with a laundry service. The hostel is really close to the lake inside the city, as usual here the lake is lit up at night…
We wander a bit in the center and end up eating yet another unknown dish, rice noodles cooked in a casserole with beef and peanuts!
Most restaurants we’ve come across in China have a “hygiene grade”, indicated by a large sticker inside the restaurant, which goes from A (best hygiene) to C (???). So far all the places we’ve eaten at were graded C, but we’re still doing good!
Mon Jan 28, 2019 22:54 GMT
Today we’ve planned to visit the Gupo Nature Park, a park a bit North of Hezhou. We’re a bit afraid that the park will be too much “arranged” again, and indeed it is as we get there: on top of the entrance ticket, we also have to buy a ticket for the small bus taking us between the various sights in the park. We’re at first less than impressed, but it turns out this bus is actually quite useful, as we came in quite late inside the park and are a bit tight to see everything we want to see. We start with “the fairy fountain” (most of the sights in the park are somehow “fairy” and have a little story attached to them), a waterfall in the forest.
From the same point, we figure out we can walk further along the road to get to mount Gupo, the highest peak in the park. The walk up takes us from 600m high to 1700m high, and is almost integrally on stairs. Here again there is a mythological theme to the hike, we pass a gate and several points where rocks are supposed to figure some characters of the story.
At some point I stop to take a picture of Maureen, and she starts yelling “Adrien, behind you!”… I think it’s just a silly joke of hers and don’t turn around, but it turns out there’s actually a monkey coming towards us, walking down the stairs. He ignores us royally while passing us and continues on its way.
As we climb higher and higher the vegetation becomes shorter, and we start to have a better view of the mountain.
We finally make it to the top, the hike is not difficult in itself but it’s been a lot of steps!
… and it’s stairs all the way again to come down.
Back at the bus stop we still have enough time to check some of the remaining sights, if not all of them. The first one is a place with some peacocks, some parrots (in chains, you can pay to get a picture with them), an old brewery and a temple. This all looks a bit Disneyland-ish to us, except Disney peacocks probably wouldn’t try to steal Maureen’s bread!
The next stop is a tea plantation which, while probably a bit fake too, is really nice to look at.
And finally after the tea plantation comes the stop we’ve been waiting for: the monkey park! Monkeys there roam around free, the meadow next to the bus stop is full of them, on the ground, in the trees, on the signposts… We of course don’t have the right to feed or pet them but we really get to observe them from close, without them being in a cage. The young ones especially jump everywhere and are a lot of fun to look at!
After spending a while watching the monkeys, it’s time to head back to Hezhou, where we try (and fail) to find a laundromat for our clothes, and try a new dish we haven’t tried yet: steamed rice where the topping also gets steamed on top of the rice, in baskets like those for dim sums (I never understood how the dish is called). The owner is over-enthusiastic about having westerners in his shop, he keeps coming to check if everything is fine, and brings his son to take a picture with Maureen and me. This is all quite fun for us :-)
#11 Zhaoqin to Hezhou
Sun Jan 27, 2019 21:36 GMT
Today we’re taking the train from Zhaoqin to Hezhou.
Simone and Diego take us to one of their favorite breakfast place to enjoy rice rolls, congee (a kind of rice soup), turnip cakes etc. Chinese food is full of textures we’re not used to in Europe, we really enjoy the almost jelly-like feel of rice rolls and the taste of the water chestnut.
We have a bit of time in the morning, Maureen goes back to the painting school to attend a calligraphy class while I rest at home reading the news and researching on the places we’re visiting next.
We leave for the train station early in the afternoon, the station is a bit outside of the city and is massive, which reminds us that the “small” city of Zhaoqing has over three and a half million inhabitants.
Chinese high speed trains are fairly modern and, as far as our experience goes, really on time: doors close a few minutes before departure and the train leaves a few seconds before the announced time. Train ticket control in China is a complex process: your ticket gets checked when you enter the station (visitors stay at the door), gets re-checked when you leave the boarding hall (where you have to wait until 10 minutes before your train arrives), and gets re-re-checked inside the train before finally being re-re-re-checked when you arrive. I wonder if anyone ever managed to cheat that system…
We make it to Hezhou in the late afternoon, the road from the train station to the center shows this is a more rural area, although Hezhou and its metropol total almost 1.5 million inhabitants: the pavement of the roads is erratic, the traffic rules mostly ignored and the dust omnipresent. The center of Hezhou gives a bit more the impression of a modern city, and is actually quite enjoyable on the riverside. Like many cities in Guanxi, Hezhou is surrounded by karstic peaks. Because the weather in Guanxi in winter is so foggy, we’ll only see the silhouette of many of them…
The lightning of the riverside buildings at night is quite sober by Chinese standards, but they apparently couldn’t resist themselves for the bridges…
As in Zhaoqin, there are people dancing on the squares everywhere, people of all ages dancing on all kinds of music. We’ll also observe them sometimes in the morning. Overall the Chinese lifestyle seems to be pretty healthy, apart from the non-existent work/life balance: the food is almost never sweet and rarely super fat, people apparently enjoy exercising (be it dancing or tai-shi or anything else), actually we’ve seen almost no overweight people since we arrived.
For our dinner we find the equivalent of running sushis for Chinese hotpot: you get a bowl of broth, and a belt runs around the table conveying the ingredients you can cook. The experience is fun but we probably do it all wrong, trying all kinds unknown ingredients in a random order… We do succeed however in keeping the waitresses laughing for the entire time we stay there.
#10 Zhaoqin, day 2
Fri Jan 25, 2019 22:25 GMT
Simone’s parents are running a traditional Chinese painting school in the same building where we stay. Yesterday, she proposed us to attend a class in the morning, we gladly accepted. So off we are, along with Diego, to the painting class! This class is for little kids (most of them are around 10 years old), the subject of today is painting a bird sitting on a tree with some flowers around. My drawing skills being what they are (or rather not are), I’m quite skeptical I’ll be able to produce anything else than a big muddy splash of paint on my canvas. But Simone’s mother breaks down the painting in little steps, explaining how to mix colors, how to use two colors on the same brush to achieve gradients etc. Within an hour, the three of us managed to paint something that actually looks like a bird sitting on a tree!
In the afternoon we go to the park of the Seven Stars, the large green area north of the lake. The park is very “Chinese” in its infrastructure: shops everywhere, electric cars between sights, and cheesy lightings inside the caves… The park in itself is however quite nice, the karstic landscape (narrow peaks on a flat land) is quite spectacular. We climb two of those to get a better view on the city and walk around until the park closes.
For the evening meal, Diego bought a local equivalent of the Colombian “tamales” (I forgot the Chinese name), sticky rice cooked in a leaf with beans and a piece of tasty fatty pork inside.
This dish is a common breakfast here, and is also easy to carry for quick lunches on the go. We spend the rest of the evening chatting with Diego and Simone and playing games, we wish this wouldn’t be our last evening with them!
#9 Zhaoqin, day 1
Thu Jan 24, 2019 15:03 GMT
We arrive around noon in Zhaoqin. The city is mainly known for its lake, with on one side the city center and on the other a large park.
In Zhaoqin we’re hosted by Simone and Diego, a Chinese-Columbian couple. Simone has to work in the afternoon, so we meet Diego first, who takes us for a walk around the city center. The historical center of Zhaoqin is surrounded by a wall and still has some traditional lower houses, although many of them have already been destroyed to be “renovated” (understand: rebuilt in a similar style but in a modern way).
We eat at home with Diego, and go check the main square by the lake afterwards, which gets really lively at night. This night they are having a special show with kids for the upcoming Chinese new year.
There are also various groups of people dancing, this is apparently pretty common on the main squares of all cities in China.
At night, Zhaoqin lights up all around the lake and the historical buildings, the result is really bright and colorful, sometimes at the expense of good taste…
At some point we decide that we’ve heard enough kids singing and go hunting for a dessert in the city. As in Kaiping, all shops here seem to be open until fairly late, and the street food stalls are plenty. Not finding any custard buns, we try a squid skewer instead.
A favorite snack seems to be chicken feet, which we’ve seen in many places since Hong Kong. One can find them as dim sums, in soups, braised, and even as snacks in supermarkets.
We wander a bit in the older, darker streets of the center, looking at the small shops and eateries before meeting Simone and Diego back at home. It’s pretty chilly outside so we make some mulled wine, and spend the evening discussing at their place.
#8 Kaiping's Diaolous
Mon Jan 21, 2019 21:57 GMT
As every time when we arrive in a new country, the first morning is used for “administrative” things. In that case, this means getting a local SIM card, since getting around without a translation app and the GPS can be quite a challenge sometimes… So far we’ve been hunting free wifis, but this task was far easier in Hong Kong than in mainland China.
The region of Kaiping is known for its architecture, a mix of local and western architecture that happened in the end of the 19th century. Cantonese people that had been traveling overseas brought home influences of colonial style, some villages are almost entirely built in this style. We selected two places based on the recommendations of Gus and on our travel guide: Chikan and Zili. Chikan is supposed to have an old center with colonial style houses and Zili has a complex of Diaolous, family houses built in the same style over four or five stories that was used as watch towers as well.
We take a bus to Chikan and get off at a corner a bit outside of the city. Although we’re in a rural area, all city bus and most mopeds are electric, which is really enjoyable from a noise perspective. The corner where we get off is pretty empty, we can already see some buildings which were probably beautiful fifty years ago, but which are now in a pretty bad state.
As we walk deeper in the city, we have the feeling of entering a ghost town: all buildings are abandoned, there’s almost nobody around, we could almost imagine tumbleweeds rolling down the streets… We’ll read later that the government has issued a massive renovation plan for the city to rebuild 4000 houses, and as a result purely and simply evacuated the place before carrying the works.
After roaming Chikan we get to Zili, which is pretty much the opposite of what Chikan is: Zili has been registered on the UNESCO list, has a paying parking (even for bikes!) and is super clean and has all the infrastructure for tourist groups. Thinking of it, maybe that’s how Chikan will look when the renovation works are done there…
Even though Zili is now a touristic site, some people still seem to live here, we can spot them taking care of their crops.
In the evening we try a local specialty, the baozifan, a rice and meat casserole cooked over live fire.
We also drink our second beer of the trip (we’re quite reasonable so far!), a Pearl River, nothing unforgettable if not the fact that we get a winning bottle and pay only one yuan for it!
We walk a bit in the city (in search of a potential dessert) and bump into a group of old ladies singing in a square together.
They seem to have a whole repertoire of songs and go through them one after another.
As said before, the upcoming year in the Chinese calendar is the year of the pig, and it looks like there’s no limit to the “piggization” of fashion accessories (we’ve seen this collar sold in many places)…
#7 Off to China!
Sun Jan 20, 2019 16:55 GMT
We leave Kelvin in the morning and take the metro to the center, where our bus to China leaves from. Our timing is a bit tight, we still have some dishes to try out in Hong Kong before we leave, notably custard buns! We find the bus station, we find a dim sum place next to the station, and we even manage to find a place to change our Hong Kong dollars to Chinese yuans before the bus leaves.
The road to the border takes around one hour, getting through the immigration takes roughly another hour… Which is apparently much longer than the time needed for a Chinese person to go through, since when we get out of the immigration office, our bus has already left without waiting for us. We end up stranded for another one and a half hours waiting for the following bus to come, but we are in China!
We drive through Shenzhen at night, the city is full of ultra modern buildings, it feels like everything was built in the last three years. Almost all large buildings are coated with LEDs, so the city is basically a collection of hundred-meter-high screens playing commercials and animations. No good for the epileptics I guess…
We arrive in Kaiping around 9pm and find a hotel near the bus station for a ridiculous price compared to Hong Kong, especially given the fact that the bathroom we have here is larger than the room we had there!
After a gargantuan plate of noodles, we are off to bed for our first night in China!
#6 Hong Kong, day 5
Sun Jan 20, 2019 16:10 GMT
The mission for today is to get a bus ticket to Kaiping in China. While many people in Hong Kong speak English, the agents of Chinese bus companies will only speak to you in Chinese… Fortunately, some people in the street help us and after bumping between a couple of ticket offices we end up in the right one. Wandering a bit in the district we end up in the Goldfish Market, a street filled with with fish shops. Some are huge and really beautiful, but some others packing frogs or turtles into boxes so tight that they can barely move are a bit disturbing… Behind the Goldfish Market is the Flower Market, with heaps of orchids and citrus trees.
Finally, behind the Flower Market is the Bird Market, where hundreds of birds chirp from their cage. Many birds are really beautiful, but it’s again a bit disturbing too see so many animals trapped in tiny spaces…
For our afternoon we clearly get out of the beaten path and go visit… a waste recycling center. Gus, the couchsurfer we met a couple of nights before, put us in touch with the organizers of the visit. We learn (well, I learn, Maureen is already trained on the subject) about the various types of plastic and how to recycle them, and about how Hong Kong organizes the collection of waste.
Hong Kong is still at the really early stages of recycling waste, although the plant we visit is the biggest of the island it only processes as much plastic per year as a small town in France (Hong Kong has 7 million inhabitants).
In the evening, we go dine with Kelvin in a Chinese vegetarian restaurant, some of the textures are really surprising and one would swear we’re eating meat!
#5 Tai O
Fri Jan 18, 2019 22:52 GMT
Today we decide to visit Tai O, a fishers village on the western part of Hong Kong. We start the day with an egg tart, the local version of the pastel de nata, itself a Portuguese recipe that came to Macao during its times as a colony. We take a first ferry to Central and then another one to Mui Wo on Lantau island.
Lantau is the island where we initially landed, since that’s where the airport is. Apart from the airport being there it is still a very rural island, it actually seems we’re in another country already. People here use their bike more (biking in central Hong Kong would be suicidal), the landscape is a lot greener, and the houses smaller.
Tai O seems to have become a popular touristic excursion for locals as well, and we’re happy not to be here on a weekend day, which we imagine would be super crowded.
The small streets are full of merchants selling both fresh and dried fish, squids, mussels…
Houses in Tai O are mostly one story high, and a whole part of the village is built over the water.
We spend the whole afternoon walking around and try some two local sweets, one made of tofu with ginger sugar and a black sesame soup.
In the evening, we take a ferry back to the north of Hong Kong and meet Kelvin who’s going to host us for the next two nights. We come in quite late, having underestimated our transportation time by a large margin… Kelvin stays in a part of Hong Kong where various houses are surrounded by small crops where people grow stuff. He himself is growing a couple of veggies, and his neighbor is running an organic farm on Hong Kong as well. Kelvin prepared us a nice Japanese soup with turnips and seaweed, and we spend the evening discussing about sustainable agriculture and architecture.
#4 Hong Kong, day 3
Fri Jan 18, 2019 17:38 GMT
Today is hiking day! After a solid breakfast, we take the ferry to Hong Kong Central and start to go up the streets. We discover more small markets on the way, including a street full of costume shops.
We then pass by the old police station, where the Victoria prison used to be in the 19th century. The site has been completely renovated and is nowadays hosting various exhibition spaces and event rooms, as well as a couple of cafes and restaurants. At the time we’re there they have an exhibition where you can visit old prisoner cells, and they seem to be busy preparing a festival for the weekend.
The next destination is the Peak, the mountain in the center of Hong Kong island overlooking the whole city. The hike up is pretty steep but quite short, and takes a bit under an hour. Taking a funicular would have been another option, but the day was nice, and hiking in the park around the Peak is quite enjoyable. On top of the Peak is, as could be expected in Hong Kong, a mall.
We continue our hike past the Peak for a couple of hours and end up in Aberdeen, a town on the southern side of the island.
Along the shore, some boats serve food during the day.
In the evening we meet Gus, a local couchsurfer who’s been traveling a lot in rural China. We are in a part of Kowloon we don’t know yet, a bit further away from the shore. Gus shows us many many interesting places in China during dinner, we’re not sure we’ll have time to see them all! He takes us for a walk in the district afterwards, where he tells us the history of Boundary Street, the diagonal cutting Kowloon in two: this street used to be the border between the Chinese and the English parts of Hong Kong, and this is still visible by looking at street names, which sound on the one side English and on the other side Chinese.
Gus also shows us a couple of his favorite graffitis and explains some of the funny traditions of the district to us, like the fact that moonshine street food sellers wait for the hygiene officers to finish their patrolling at 10:30pm to start their business. After all this hiking and learning, we come back to the hotel exhausted and fall asleep right away!
#3 Hong Kong, day 2
Thu Jan 17, 2019 19:15 GMT
Busy times here! We only now find time to put this post together.
We take a ferry to Wang Chai on Hong Kong island on Wednesday morning and start our exploration from there. Walking here happens on many levels: there are the usual streets on the ground floor, but also a network of aerial sidewalks which allows moving efficiently without having to wait to cross streets. The northern part of Hong Kong island is a narrow strip of land at the foot of a mountain, following the shore. Lots of space was gained over the water, but the resulting surface is still tiny in comparison to the number of people living there. As you walk away from the shore, streets quickly become steeper, and buildings older.
We walk first in the area between Wan Chai and Admiralty, which is a bit outside the banking sector. The streets near the shore are full of luxury shops, but get less fancy further inland.
We wander for a bit in a small pedestrian neighborhood around St. Francis Yard, where we stop for a milk tea and a French toast (two typical Hong Kong specialties).
Everything here is pretty organized and really clean (especially in this part of the city), and signs are everywhere to tell you what to do and what not to do. The ambiance doesn’t feel too oppressive however (at least as a tourist).
After our short break, we walk towards Hong Kong Central to see some of the iconic skyscrapers, among which the one of the Bank of China and of HSBC. We also pass some luxury malls on the way, where everything is new, beautifully designed, quiet… And unaffordable.
Because the streets become steep so quickly, Hong Kong island has a system of mechanical stairs taking you from Central metro station all the way up to the higher districts. All together those mechanical stairs are the longest elevator in the world (according to the Guinness Book of records).
We don’t go all the way up however and stop around Graham street, attracted by the streets full of markets and food stalls.
We decide to eat here and stop by one of the stalls, where we share our table with various other people. Our seat neighbor helps us understand the menu, I end up eating some pig feet, while Maureen goes for a beef curry.
We continue on Hollywood road to the Man Mo Taoist temple. People here buy fruits and incense sticks to give to the gods, and hit on a drum after each prayer. The air is so smoky with all the incense sticks that there needs to be fans to keep it breathable, even though the temple personal keeps throwing away the old sticks.
We then walk down through merchant streets selling ginseng and all kinds of dried goods, we have yet to discover how those are used (they dry everything, from mushrooms to squids, sea stars etc.). We take the old tramway back towards the east to see the Jardine’s Crescent market, a lane filled with street stalls so close to each other than one can barely cross another person.
Every Wednesday, the Hong Kong Jockey Club organizes horse races. You get in for a small entrance fee and can see a number of short races (we left after the 5th one, it was getting late). Even though we don’t know anything about horse races, the ambiance is quite electrifying! People all around bet on the horses, and shout as the races get to the finish line.
After two days in Hong Kong we still haven’t had dim sum, so we decide to fix this problem.
#2 Arrived in Hong Kong
Tue Jan 15, 2019 19:48 GMT
After a pretty exhausting flight (wailing kids having prevented most of our attempts at properly sleeping) and a short layover in Singapore, we arrive in Hong Kong in the morning. The weather is much warmer than Berlin (around 20 degrees) and is also quite humid. We take a nap in our hostel before hitting the streets. Our hostel is in Kowloon, the part of Hong Kong attached to the continent. Kowloon is in some aspects the rougher side of Hong Kong, at least in comparison to the part with all the banks on the island (or so we read, we haven’t been there yet!), it has an interesting alternance of fancy shops and tiny stalls, luxury malls and run down buildings… Streets are, as expected, very dense, sidewalks packed with people, and business stacked on top of each other in high buildings.
The Chinese New year is approaching, next year is the year of the pig, you can therefore spot pig-themed sculptures in the streets and items in the shops.
The promenade along the sea seems to be closed for renovation unfortunately, due to the mist we can barely see the buildings on Hong Kong island.
We take our time to wander in the streets of Kowloon and across Kowloon Park (a welcome oasis of quiet and green in the city), before ending up in a bar where we plan our next days here.
The mood is pretty good so far, being here already feels like a huge change from Berlin, and we hope to be done with the jetlag tomorrow!