Archive for the ‘china’ Category

and the winners are…

February 7, 2010

Last night we checked in to our 100th hotel. In celebration of this milestone, we reviewed our list of accommodation and decided to let you in on some of the best and worst moments. Note to our mums – I’ll give you the nod when it’s time for you to leave.

The good:*

Friendliest welcome – Tony’s Guesthouse, Melaka & North West Guesthouse, Mae Sariang
Tony – what a legend. The man is a kindred Little Creatures lover – need we say more? After tiring of “always screwing the union” as a government employee, his life now revolves around cooking the perfect eggs for his guests and fishing.

We only meant to spend a day or two in Mae Sariang, but a week later we were still lounging on the verandah at North West. We had no need that Tukta and Kitti couldn’t cater to – they let us take our own beers from the fridge; lent us their bikes and knew the best lady-boy in town to go to for a haircut.

Country with highest accommodation standards – Vietnam
Despite the fact that we encountered two of our most horrific hotels in Vietnam (see below), the general standard was very high. There doesn’t seem to be much of a culture of ultra-cheap dorm beds and shared bathrooms, but when $10 buys you a spotless fan room with TV, attached bathroom and hot water, who cares?

Best on ground – Zhilam Hostel, Kangding
We’ve already sung the praises of this place, but it deserves another shout-out. Dare I say it, Kris could charge double for this place and it would still be good value. Endless hot water in pristine bathrooms; crisp linen, and Kris and Lillian seemed to know exactly the right moment to ask you if you wanted a cup of tea. Worthy candidate in the “friendliest welcome” category, but we had to share the glory around a little.

OK, so I’ll quickly move on to the nasty bits because we all know they are far more interesting. Mums: leave now.

The bad:

Worst value for money – Prince of Wales Hotel, Singapore
How on earth did we land ourselves in a hostel above an Australian-themed backpackers pub? Our first stop on the trip, I can only think we were blinded by the excitement of it all. Apart from being full of shocking bogans, the wailing of dreadful covers bands blared from the bar downstairs until 3am every night and all the advertised “perks” turned out to be not nearly as appealing as advertised. “Free breakfast” = a few loaves of stale sliced bread, Nescafe and eggs you cook for yourself in a greasy pan, the stocks of which stop being replenished about 30 minutes before the ridiculously early cut-off time of 9am – so, if you’re us, you end up with cold coffee dregs and a dry crust for breakfast. “Air con” = will be switched on at 10pm and turned off at 6am. Even at $60 for a spartan private room, you still have to share a bathroom with the room next door and from the $20 dorm beds, you have to schlepp downstairs to use the toilets in the pub. Boo.

Biggest disappointment – Ko Tarutao
One thing we noticed consistently throughout SE Asia is a lack of concern for upkeep. New places go up and then are left to decay, quickly, as one might expect in a tropical climate, without a sniff of fresh paint or basic maintenance until they reach the point of no-return, when they are torn down and rebuilt again. Being government-run, there was a small army of staff employed on the island, but it was as though highly specific jobs (I mean highly specific, like “sweep this one square metre of concrete”) were allocated on Day One and that file was then hastily closed with a sigh of relief, never to be reopened. Broken windows, burnt-out light globes and wonky doors abounded and despite being promoted as an eco-resort, there was rubbish everywhere – but it was nobody’s job to fix it, so it never happened.

Bed bugs – Greens Hotel, Jerantut & Welcome Hotel, Bombay
Conveniently for Linds, both incidents occurred when we were sleeping in separate beds. My bout in Bombay prompted a response of “Oh my God” from the guy on the reception desk.

Weirdest – Lete Hostel, Xining
Where else but China would it be perfectly acceptable to rent out the top two floors of a high-rise apartment building to a youth hostel? An eerily deserted rabbit warren of rooms, with staff who looked at you as though you had two heads. And I’m pretty sure they used a damp mop to clean the carpets.

Most dangerous – Can’t remember the name, Xiahe
Apart from nearly dying from exposure during the night, going to the toilet involved taking your life in your own hands. Guests are required to take the most circuitous route around the outer perimeter of the courtyard to avoid a savage dog, whose chain is just a mite shorter than what he needs to reach you and sink his teeth into your leg. I knew he was there, but I was still half scared to death every time he barked – not really what you need as you’re scurrying towards the fetid loo, bladder bursting from already having delayed the trip for as long as humanly possible.

The ugly:

No categories here – there is one undisputed winner of this dubious honour:

Trade Union Hotel, Ben Tre
This place had the vibe of a private enterprise which had been taken over by the Communists at the end of the war… and never cleaned since. Cigarette butts in the shower drain, highly suspicious wall stains and a roach graveyard under the bed. It was after staying here that “presence of a toilet seat” became a mandatory item on our room inspection checklist.

Notable mention must be made of the place we stayed in Vinh Long, also in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. I was suffering a nasty head cold at the time and couldn’t face venturing outside our otherwise passable room, so Linds waited until after we left to tell me that there were soiled prophylactics down the side of the bed.

* excluding statistical outliers – namely, posh hotels funded by other people’s generosity

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tropical beer notes #16 – 22: china & tibet omnibus edition

November 26, 2009

 

Yeah, yeah. I know we’re not in the tropics anymore, but we’ll be back there soon. Don’t fret.

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Snow Beer 3.3%   China

Ever heard of Guangzhou, Dongguan or Shenzhen? Put these cities together and you’ve got something like 30 million people.

Meet Snow Beer. I’d never heard of it but it’s the biggest selling beer in the world. Chinese peeps and the odd grubby Australian get though 61 million hectolitres a year. I’d never even heard of a hectolitre before now.

Actually, Snow is kind of like a modern Chinese city: soulless, banal, very modern. Although I’m not picking up any hints of Orwellian vision.  God, I talk some rubbish on this thing. Anyhow – note that Snow overtook Bud Lite about a year ago. Not really a great loss for humanity there.

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Dali Beer 3-point-something-%   China

I can’t remember what strength it is, but all Chinese beer is what Australians deem ‘mid-strength’ anyway.

Comes with about four different labels, but it all tastes like crap (haven’t you missed that Dodd eloquence?).

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Tsingtao Beer 3.1%   China

The most well known, thanks to being the least crap beer in China.

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Stout Lodge   4.5%   China

Where is Stout Lodge? I want to stay there.

Lots of chocolate in this one. It bills itself as German, but any beer lout worth his hops would know that Bavarians don’t even make stout. Not that this sort of detail is a barrier to the marketing execs of China. The inane but hilarious dribble on the label is probably the best thing about it:

“German stout uses only the best ingredients and the ingredients are subject to the strictest screening processes. German stout is brewed with teadi-tionnal methods which has established its elite status in stout. Its deep chocolate color, smooth foam and light chocolate flavor di-stincts from others nevertheless, the good old German heritage remains. Ger-man stout is the best enjoyment you can have ta anytime stout.”

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Guinness Foreign Extra   5%   China via Malaysia

GFE’s providence is so confusing. This one is made in Malaysia but is not for sale in that country; it’s produced solely for export to China. Essentially a not-quite-as-good version of the one I tried all those months ago on the Malay Peninsula.

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Kingway Beer can’t-remember-%   China

Ah, my old friend Kingway. It’s not much to recommend but it did send me on a trip down memory lane. In the late nineties, the now sadly defunct John Coppins bottle shop* sold cartons of this stuff for a crazy cheap $20. Around the corner, Tommy Bell and I were doing some horrific labouring for his uncle, Blinky Bell – shocking Dockers supporter and Len Buckridge wannabe. After a hard day of scrubbing pavers with acid, Tom and I would retire to Tom’s squalid abode, the infamous and thankfully long gone “Moon Unit“, in Cottesloe. There we would sate our first-year-uni-student thirst and workshop marketing slogans, full of the wit that only freshers can summon:

“Kingway – good for Chairman Mao! Good for you!”
(actually, I’ve taken to remembering that one as “Good for Chairman Mao! Had better be good for you!”)

“Kingway – brewed from the freshest Yangtze Dam waters!”

…and probably the most worthy of reminiscence:

“Kingway – choice of a repressed generation!” (Get it? Like Pepsi? OK maybe only Tom gets it, or got it when he was 18)

Of course, all must be chanted with a mock Chinese accent that many in the community would consider highly offensive.

 

*taken over by the do-ers of Satan’s bidding, Vintage Cellars

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Lhasa Beer 4.3%   Tibet

The “beer from the roof of the world.” Soapy and fizzy. It’s not that great, but drinking the stuff in Lhasa is. It became a near compulsory component of our meals.

Here I am with Ryan “Where’s the chopper?” Pace, one half of Ryan & Indiana Jo, our long-suffering Tibetan travelling partners. Ryan and I decided to celebrate reaching 5020m, the highest point of the journey to Tibet, with a refreshing drink. My Tibetan cabin mates gesticulated wildly at me as I prepared to crack it open – turns out they weren’t encouraging me to quench my thirst but warning that beer explodes on opening at this altitude. Not the best way to make friends and influence people.

panda-monium

November 3, 2009

We figured we ought to visit at least one colossal, polluted Chinese city, so we headed to Chengdu. The fifth most populous city in China, it chewed us up and spat us right back out again. Needing to pay the deposit for our Tibet trip, we entered in to the Kafka-esque nightmare that is Chinese banking. Three branches, five forms and two hours later, I think we made a deposit into our agent’s account. After that, we desperately wanted to flee the city but our efforts even to do that were thwarted. Admittedly, we had seriously underestimated demand for bus tickets to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve and failed to purchase them in advance. I mean, the place only receives about 1.5 million visitors annually…

At least there were pandas. And a great BBQ (wine! imported beer! things on sticks!), kindly hosted by an expat family who were our hotel neighbours in Lijiang. The dad works for Chevron and lived in Perth for a while in the 80s. To know Perth is to love it (ahem), so we were in like Flynn.

 

 

On pandas: like many native Australian animals, they are completely useless. Such is their uselessness, Google tells me that they are high on the hit-list of a fearsome Facebook group, the “Coalition against Useless Animals.”  They can barely eat enough bamboo to sustain their lazy-ass bodies; they can’t even be bothered to procreate. Now that’s lazy.

And so we headed to Xining because, frankly, it had been far too long since we tortured ourselves with a 24-hour journey. We must be looking scrawny because our fellow passengers rallied to force feed us throughout the entire trip. I love nothing more than seeing a petite, immaculately groomed and urbane Chinese woman chow down on a whole, hard boiled duck egg and a dried sausage squashed inside a flatbread. I like to think she equally enjoyed watching me scoff one down. Well tasty and it sure beat cup noodles.

 

 

Xining is home to the saintly Clark, an English teacher at the local high school, who we met when he rescued us from getting completely lost in Hanoi. Not the prettiest of cities, but super friendly and some great food thanks to the melting pot of Chinese, Tibetan and Muslim cultures (and Clark knowing the best places to go).

 

 

 

With a few days up our sleeve before our Tibet departure, we did a warm-up trip to Tongren and Xiahe, the leading monastery town outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when goat heads are selling like hot cakes in the market. We also had our first taste of Tibetan black tea, which is big, gnarly and smells like tobacco. Kind of like a lot of Tibetans, really.

 

 

yak attack

November 3, 2009

Many months ago, keen observers of our Flickr page may have noticed our deliberations over the best route to India. Given the expense of our original plan to go through Tibet to Nepal, we threw a whole stack of other options open for consideration.* And consider we did. In fact, we agonised over this question daily for several weeks before eventually deciding to stick with our original route. So we never really viewed China as a destination but, rather, a means to an Indian end. And in a way, this kind of characterised what we loved most about China – the amazing journeys, rather than the destinations themselves. Our meanderings through ethnically-Tibetan Western Sichuan were an awesome way to get from Shangri-la to Chengdu, especially given that we weren’t at all sure whether the area might be closed to tourists, as is has been in the past.

In 2001, the Chinese government rebranded the dusty frontier town of Zhongdian as the much-more-mystical-sounding “Shangri-la” in an effort to drum up tourism. On arrival, we agreed this was a little akin to rebranding Port Hedland as “Atlantis”. Nevertheless, it was our introduction to the Tibetan world and it heralded a few firsts: first sighting of a flock of Tibetan monks, buying chocolate at the supermarket; first genuine fear that the weight of our bodies might compromise the structural integrity of our bed; and our first brush with serious altitude, which left us very thankful for the fleeces hurriedly purchased in Lijiang, despite the fact that the only available XXL was in a bright orange hue which makes Linds look like a freakishly oversized carrot.

 

 

 

 

 

The cold weather was all the excuse we needed to up our daily calorie intake, so we religiously ingested a mammoth breakfast at Helen’s each morning, waited upon and entertained by the charming Marco who would not be at all out of place hamming it up on the floor at our beloved Maurizio’s. And we started seeing a lot of yak, both in the fields and on our plates.

 

 

October 1 is the National Day holiday in China and this year was a big one, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding the the PRC. As far as we could tell, National Day is not celebrated in any similar fashion to Australia Day, although we did see a group of youths carting a huge bottle of moonshine off to guzzle in the park. We watched some of the huge military parade on TV in the morning, later learning that Beijing was in lockdown for most of the day and that government scientists had chemically altered the weather to ensure that no one rained on their parade. Ha.

A definite highlight was our nightly visit to the square in the old town where locals of all shapes and sizes would turn out in their droves for a bit of Tibetan circle dancing. Apart from being the ultimate in people-watching opportunities, we both found ourselves quite touched by the strong sense of pride and community on display. It’s a special place where skinny jean-clad boys enthusiastically get their groove on alongside their nanas. Linds did a great job humming and shuffling out some steps in the CD store when we wanted to ask about buying the music. Must have been the practice he got pretending to be an elephant when we wanted to go to the elephant park in Lampang.

When the time came for us to leave Shangri-la, we found out the hard way that our alarm clock was running half an hour slow. Chinese buses are prompt, but thankfully not that prompt as the bus had only managed to make it 300m down the road. The ride to Xiangcheng was beautiful although unfortunately, the same could not be said for the town itself. As we followed the guesthouse tout up a dusty road, over a wooden walkway, through a rusty gate, down a gravel path, past a smelly outhouse and through the ground floor/rubbish dump of an unmarked building, we wondered if we were being led into some sort of house of horrors. Instead, we emerged into an Aladdin’s cave of a dorm room with every surface covered in intricate and gilded Tibetan patterns. Beautiful? Yes. Unexpected? Definitely. Waterproof? Uh… no. We were woken around midnight by the sound of dripping water and calls for help from upstairs residents who later had to seek asylum in our room.

 

 

Apart from a bootful of water, our stay in Xiangcheng also yielded a fruitful relationship with some Kiwis, James and Betsy, and Yanks, Dan and Brandon. Drawn together by adversity (being refused tickets by the notoriously unhelpful bus lady at 5am – the woman still works with an abacus, for goodness’ sake), the six of us formed a happy, if slightly delirious, travelling party for the next few days as we rattled around in a series of vans.

 

The first leg to Litang was stunning and we were glad to have the opportunity to pull over at the peak of a 5000m pass to frolic in the snow. Not much of a novelty for the others, but we were like giddy schoolgirls. Nomadic Tibetans surround the area and there was much reciprocal staring between us and some seriously cool-looking people – wild, dreadlocked little urchins; graceful young women with long braids and wide-brimmed hats; burly yak-herds on motorbikes.

Another thing you can’t help but notice in this part of the world is that a lot of Tibetan monasteries are only now just being rebuilt after their destruction in the Cultural Revolution. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the damage done, not just in Tibetan areas but throughout the country. So ersatz antiquity is big business in China.

 

 

We knew we were in trouble on the road to Kangding when we realised that the person directing traffic through 19km of roadworks was in fact a 5-year old child. His mother did appear to have the job, but he was the one wearing the high-vis vest and playing with the walkie-talkie. We amused ourselves by observing the antics of a manically-driven little blue truck that we dubbed “Zippy”; repeatedly piling in and out of the van; telling other drivers that they were very silly; and trying out a few choice Chinese phrases such as “laowai mafa” (“foreigners are trouble”). Four hours later we finally rolled into Kangding and scored what must have been the last mattress in town, which all six of us shared on the floor with a lone Chinese cyclist. Thankfully, Kris at the wonderful Zhilam Hostel had a little more space for us the next night. We cocooned ourselves there for the next few days, as Kris fed us like an Italian grandmother and we renewed our visas. Huge props Zhilam – absolutely the best budget accommodation of the trip.

 

 

*At one stage, we were going to put all these options out for a popular vote on the blog. On further consideration, we decided against it after realising that our dearest friends would most certainly elect to send us to our deaths along the Karakoram Hwy into Pakistan, just for gags. Or that our mums would rig the vote so that the option of “Other: Come home immediately” enjoyed a landslide victory.

chinglish

November 1, 2009

Take care of children and oldies on the escalator. Ha. Oldies.

Satisfied Race Things Store. The store was closed at the time, so sadly I still have no idea what things a satisfied race might like to buy.

No 4 Branch of Soil Pot Food. Apparently, there are three other restaurants that also sell food cooked in an earthenware pot.

Banana rolled cat gruel. Poor cat! A gruesomely misplaced “c” where there ought to have been an “o”, but still not a very appetising description of banana porridge.

And my favourite:

Characteristics of the Dwarfs Cake. We wanted to buy some, but they’d run out. A shortcake, perhaps? Boom boom.

china: where grey is the new black

November 1, 2009

You only have to be in China for a few minutes to know that it’s a country on the move. With massive (grey) construction and (grey) infrastructure projects going on everywhere, it’s no wonder they chew up Australian iron ore like Smarties.

Our arrival in the PRC received an unexpectedly warm welcome – the friendliest and most helpful immigration officers to date (save for the Malaysian guy who cracked about a million “Lindsay-is-a-woman’s-name” jokes), generous donations of pomegranates and a careful explanation of the bus passenger vote to pay an extra 20Y (AU$3) each and take the tollway, which ploughed through several mountains and shaved 4 hours off the journey to Kunming. At least democracy exists on the bus.

Yet as we were soon to discover, impressive infrastructure comes at a cost much higher than 20Y. The construction of said infrastructure breeds equally impressive traffic jams, which became a bit of a blight on our time in China, and despite the spaghetti mess of flyovers criss-crossing the city, it wasn’t long before we were the victims of a no-rules 4-way intersection with a taxi pigheadly wedged in the middle of two lanes of oncoming trucks.

 

 

Kunming: a comparably petite and wealthy Chinese city, unremarkable in its greyness and endless shopping malls. Yes, consumer culture is alive and well in People’s China, although the forces of supply and demand haven’t yet permeated the budget travel industry, which is still in its infancy. While competition in other Asian nations has driven accommodation standards up and prices down, digs in China are comparably quite expensive. So while the old skool hostel is now extinct in much of Asia, it lives on in China and in the interests of fiscal responsibility, we made the switch to dorm-and-shared-bathroom life. Ah, I love nothing more than being bombarded with hundreds of signs that precisely instruct me on how to do every little task, from getting the local bus to turning the tap on and disposing of toilet paper. At least we got to meet the lovely Liz (our first Chinese buddy!) who kindly guided us on several culinary adventures and who (I think) we impressed with our levels of chilli tolerance.

The old skool hostel is also home to a previously unencountered species of traveller: the domestic Chinese backpacker. Prolific in number, they’re quite useful to have around as bus station touts ignore us entirely in their squabble for the domestic backpacker dollar. Common characteristics include: head-to-toe Goretex kit; monstrous SLR slung around neck; constant sipping from BYO tea flask topped up with free hot water. Stalking them and observing their habits has become a sort of sick hobby.

A brief aside about Chinese toilets: shockers. They leave remote Turkish mosque toilets in their dust. The only positive we can derive from visiting them is that we are being forcibly prepared for India. No doors; just a line of waist-high cubicles set over a channel in the floor which may have water flushed through it occasionally, if you’re lucky. Often replete with pig-sty out the back, to add to the stench and grunting noises coming from within. If your squatting style is best kept private, then you’re in serious trouble.

 

 

 

Oddly enough, in Dali we were offered drugs more frequently than anywhere else we’ve been. Even more oddly, such offers invariably came from sweet-looking grannies in minority dress or ladies with cute babies strapped to their backs. Apart from more adventures, both culinary and vertical, with Liz, the defining feature of our stay in Dali was an ill-fated bike ride. We try not to consult Lonely Planet too religiously, but sometimes I really wonder what on earth they’re on about. Or in a country that is changing as fast as China is, I seriously question the usefulness of a guidebook that is bound to be obsolete by the time it is published. We embarked on “a great bike trip”, proceeding as advised on the less congested secondary road… which abruptly came to an end about 5kms north of town. A section of gravel road under construction lay ahead, which we optimistically rattled along for a while longer, dodging excavators and telling ourselves that the smooth asphalt would return any minute now. It didn’t. But no matter; a short passage through a cute village led us to the main highway which, although more densely trafficked, was paved with the elusive asphalt. Clouds looking a little ominous, we decided to abandon our planned visit to a farther-flung village and head for the shores of the reputedly beautiful Erhai Lake. But that was before we had several uncomfortably close encounters with maniacally-driven vegetable trucks. And before it started to piddle with rain. Are we having fun yet? Of course we can’t blame Lonely Planet for the rain, but we never got to the lake.

 

 

 

We were pretty excited to arrive in Lijiang, partly because of the less-crowded-than-expected old town, which is the stuff of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (albeit studded with souvenir shops selling cowboy hats and all things yak-related) but mostly because of our stay at the Zen Garden Hotel, generously funded by The Gang in honour of a certain birthday. Linds had displayed an extraordinary degree of foresight in booking us in for a longer than usual stay, so that we might take full advantage of the opportunity to lounge about in complimentary slippers and robes, sipping tea and enjoying the strains of a Chinese zither wafting up from the bonsai garden. Very Zen indeed.

 

 

the great firewall of china

September 17, 2009

 

The flurry of posts in recent days, despite a truly glacial internet connection, has been in preparation for tomorrow’s crossing into China, where we are expecting beyondbagot to be blocked by the Great Firewall.

So it’s adios until Nepal – we’ll see you in Kathmandu in about 6 weeks. In the meantime, here’s a pic for you to remember us by:

 

 

P.S. See what I mean about WordPress’ inexplicably dodgy formatting? The post below looks like a dog’s breakfast. It makes me so angry!