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This post is a little overdue but it is also very important as it is likely to be my last post on this blog. As you may have gathered from the title my time in China has come to an end. I had every intention of writing this post from the airport as I waited for my flight out of China but there were a few other posts I hadn’t written yet and so many photos I still wanted to share from the holiday to Guilin and Yangshuo that it just didn’t happen. This post does come on a rather auspicious day however as it was on this very day, two years ago, back in 2009 that I left Cape Town International Airport with a one-way ticket to China.

I think you’ll agree that something’s just not quite right about this photo…

It is hard to sum up the last two years in a single post but with any luck you will have been following my adventure via this blog so all that is left is for me to do is to give you my impression of China. Writing this several weeks after leaving China I am able to look back on my time there with some perspective. There are several people I’ve met that have asked me, “how was China?” and my response has been this, (more…)

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Seven Links is a concept that has been doing the rounds in blogging circles and I was just nominated by Nicole from Third Eye Mom.

The idea is that you choose the best post from seven different categories and then nominate other bloggers to do the same. It is a great way to highlight some older posts that readers may have missed as well as promote some of the blogs I like to follow. This is also particularly apt as I have completed my contracts in China and this blog will soon come to an end as I move on to my next experience. Until then here are my Seven of the Best:

NB: Clicking on the link or image will open the original post in a new window where you will be able to enlarge the images/watch the videos.

1.  Most beautiful post: My 100th Post – Night lights of Shanghai

Whether it was the bright lights, tall buildings or the fact that there were more people who spoke and understood English in Shanghai I really loved Shanghai as a city. This post includes a panorama of The Bund at night viewed from the Pudong side of the Huangpu River and the image is over 5600 pixels wide.

2.  Most popular post: You’re never too old to do Tai Chi 

Based on statistics and number of views – receiving over 5000 views in 72 hours thanks to being Freshly Pressed. This post features some great candid shots from Fuxing Park with hundreds of people out enjoying the morning, each in their own way.

3.  Most controversial post: Wedding Bells in China

Being more of a journal than an opinion piece I don’t think  I have written anything too controversial but this title was misinterpreted by lots of people assuming I was making an announcement of my own. Perhaps I should have gone with the alternative title, “Wedding Bangs in China

4.  Most helpful post: Teaching my first class…

This may not be all that helpful but it helped me cope with the stress of teaching my first English as a Foreign Language class and perhaps it will help other first time TEFL teachers out there.

5.  Most surprisingly successful post: Suzhou, the “Venice of China” or is it?

This was not the most popular by views but it was quite high up the rankings of most visited posts. I was surprised as I thought it was quite controversial and rather scathing of Suzhou as a tourist destination however lots of people found it from searches while planning vacations and hopefully I merely tempered their expectations without putting them off completely.

 

6.  Most under-rated post: Mounting Yellow Mountain

This was a trip our school took us on to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) and I was busy at the time getting to and from Beijing to run the Great Wall Half Marathon that I used the write-up of Roux Van Zyl, a colleague of mine who used to be a journalist, which I thought was good and slightly different from my very factual style. The post also included lots of pictures but they were in a gallery format and perhaps that’s why it didn’t get the response I expected.

7.  Post I am the most proud of: Revisiting the Great Wall Marathon 2010

I was asked by a friend to rewrite my experience of running the Great Wall Half Marathon for his new online Trail Running Magazine which was challenging but fun at the same time and it included some of the official photos and videos that had arrived in the post. It was also no mean feat to get the video uploaded from China where YouTube and a whole host of other social media websites are blocked.

And now here are my nominations:

Allan’s Journeyhttp://allansjourney.wordpress.com/ – Some amazing photography and stories from Asia.

Angela’s adventures in wonderland: http://thaimeofmylife.wordpress.com/ – Someone I met when I first started teaching who started in China and is now in Thailand. Great photos and a unique style of writing.

Little Miss Medic: http://little-miss-medic.blogspot.com/ – A South African doctor living in London. Trying her hand at travelling around Europe, whilst working part-time. Book lover, fashion follower and eternal pessimist. All the stories are true, but names have been kept anonymous.

Magic of Mine: http://magicofmine.wordpress.com/ – Some beautiful photography here above and below water.

ShortFinal.tv: http://www.shortfinal.tv/ – A friend of mine, Hilton, is the brainchild behind ShortFinal.tv and claims the title of a self-appointed unofficial video reporter for aviation in South Africa. A fantastic vlog for any aviation enthusiast like myself.

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Firstly, those of you following me on Twitter may be a bit confused with all the New Zealand images. Well, that’s because I fell behind in my blog posts and as I write this I am travelling around New Zealand. But I do have a few more blogs to write on my China experiences including this crazy story. So keep reading and if you have something to say just leave a comment at the end.

So for our last day we had nothing planned and chose to just relax. It was a late start with a leisurely walk into town for some breakfast before returning to the hostel to play Risk and Scrabble out on the deck. I was soundly beaten several times at Scrabble so proposed Risk which took as long to figure out the rules as it did to play. We also made several mistakes along the way which may have affected the outcome but I would argue that my victory was deserved after all the defeat at Scrabble.

Glee at having won our 2 person Risk game

After that we went in search of the secret swimming spot that the hostel staff had told us about down a windy road where we encountered this water buffalo who looked friendly enough but got quite skittish when you approached him. Anyway I got quite close trying to remove the grass stuck on his horn but he didn’t like that. Sense prevailed and we let him be.

a Water Buffalo on the side of the road

We searched for the secret swimming spot but didn’t find anything that looked right so we gave up and I went form a swim where all the other locals were swimming which was on the way into town. The water was beautifully warm and very refreshing.

The swimming spot where all the locals go

Having some fun and giving the locals something to talk about

Having worked up an appetite it was into town for dinner and then back via Rory at Nature’s Cup for another delicious Malibu Dom Pedro. The next morning we had a relaxed breakfast at the hostel overlooking the valley before getting a taxi to the bus station having bought our tickets on the Yangshuo-Guilin express bus for a mere 18 Yuan. On time and like clockwork the bus departed and an hour later we were back in Guilin where first order of business was to find lunch and then report to the travel agent where we had paid for our sleeper bus tickets 5 days previously.

To my relief the guy we bought the tickets from was in the office, just a prefab room in the train station parking lot, but my relief was short-lived as he looked at us as if he’d never seen us before. I handed over the hand written receipt he’d given us the previous week and he looked more confused which is when I started to worry. He then leaned back in his chair and said “Now there is no bus.” What do you mean no bus? The bus apparently had problems with its air conditioner and because it was summer it was too hot to run it without air-conditioning so it was canceled. Of course, the only other bus later that evening was sold out and if the train was sold out the week before we were stuck but he said he could give us train tickets for the train, same price as the bus, in 4 hours time. They were hard sleeper tickets though which we were determined to avoid. Not thrilled with being messed around, having to wait 4 hours and the prospect of 18 hours on a hard sleeper bunk, Margaurita went in search of another agent who said they had space on a bus leaving in 20 minutes so we got our money back from the first guy and went next door only for them to change their story and now also say they could only get us on the bus the following day. Tired of being messed around and with planes to catch back in Shanghai  we really wanted to get home that day so reluctantly we went back to the first guy and said we would take the train tickets but I knew hard sleepers didn’t cost 400 Yuan so I we started bargaining and I said I wanted to see the tickets so he said “wait a moment” and disappeared into the car park. Five minutes later he returned with 2 train tickets with the price of 270 Yuan printed on them. He then proceeded to explain that they were black market tickets so we had to pay 60 Yuan commission for each ticket. This is when we got angry saying he sold us bus tickets and now he wanted us to pay extra for train tickets but he said that was just the way it worked. I was irate, and began to wonder if there ever was a bus or if his plan all along was to cheat us. Selling us bus tickets for a bus that never existed and then palming train tickets off to us when we were stuck and without options for the same price. We haggled with him and got the commission down to 35 Yuan each and when I asked for a receipt he gave me a hand written receipt for 70 Yuan (the commission on both tickets) and not the ticket prices because they were black market and illegal. Feeling like our hands were tied and we didn’t have many options I then asked what would happen if I took this receipt and the tickets to the police station across the road at which point he got very defensive and reached to grab the tickets out of my hand. Evidently I had hit a nerve and he did look worried. I wasn’t going to go to the police because we wanted to go home but I did get some satisfaction out of seeing him squirm a little. He then proceeded to tell us that this was just how it worked and that they didn’t like the system either. So we left with train tickets in hand and had a few hours to kill so we went back into town to try to shop for some snacks for the train but finding a supermarket proved easier said then done. Eventually we found one and then had to rush back to the station and we only just made it onto the platform as the whistle was sounding for the train to leave and we were on board nervously searching for our hard sleeper compartment, anxious as to what we might find, who our bunk mates would be and how dirty it would be? And there it was, our 6 sleeper compartment and we were on the top bunks on either side having to climb over two others to get to them. This was the view from the top looking down into our compartment.

each compartment has 3 bunks on each side and no door

There was some space thankfully for our luggage but not much room to stretch my legs.

leg room and luggage storage

 More than at the other end of the bed though…

not much head room on the top bunk

Luckily for us the people in our compartment weren’t too bad, no-one snored loudly or ate stinky tofu and the one young child was kept occupied by his father’s iPhone. What I didn’t tell you earlier was that the tickets this agent had arranged for us on the black market weren’t in fact back to Hangzhou South where we wanted to go but only to Jinhua, two stops before our station. When we challenged the agent he said that it was no problem we could speak to one of the waitresses on the train and just upgrade the ticket by paying for the extra sections. We were not convinced that this would be as easy as he suggested with us not being able to speak Chinese but he was adamant and even wrote us a note in Chinese. He was also adamant that it would only cost 20/30 yuan. So the next morning when we got to Jinhua we simply stayed in our bunks and waited. Sure enough an official made his way through the car asking people where they were going and printing new tickets with the correct destination and taking payment via either cash or card. When he came to us we said Hangzhou South and he understood and then said our new tickets would be 80 Yuan each which was a surprise and far too expensive we thought. So we mimed that a seat, as opposed to the sleeper bunk, would be alright for the rest of the journey as we knew that would be cheaper. He then reprocessed the tickets and they were only 3o odd Yuan but he then basically frog marched us out of the sleeper car making sure we weren’t going to just stay where we were, through the dining car and into the seated car section. Well, not quite into the seated section as it was so full there were already people standing and squatting in the aisle.

no standing room even

We looked at this and looked back at the official who was still motioning for us to go into the car so she could shut the door and keep us separate from the sleeper cars but we just stood our ground blocking the door with my suitcase and refused to move. Eventually she gave up and left so we moved back into the corridor along the kitchen of the dining car and stood for the rest of the journey which was only another 40 minutes. We arrived at Hangzhou South Railway Station and had to exit through the car (see above) which was just disgusting. Despite no smoking signs I told 3 guys to stop smoking as I walked through and the floor was just covered in plastic bags, rubbish, chicken bones and nut shells. Perhaps the hard sleeper wasn’t so bad after all. I couldn’t imagine spending 18 hours on a hard seat in an overcrowded car like that. Back in our apartments, and showered, we were so relieved to be home in Xiaoshan after this crazy journey that had started 26 hours earlier, back in Yangshuo.

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It was time for a truly authentic bamboo raft experience on the Yulong River, which is a tributary of the Li River in  Yangshuo. These rafts are smaller and only take two people plus a helmsman who guides  you down the river using a long bamboo pole. It was sold as a romantic tour with no engines or big ferry boats to disturb you but in China the biggest challenge is simply the number of people so it’s rare to ever have something all to yourself. That having being said it was beautiful and there was some excitement as you go over these 3-4 foot weirs on rafts that certainly haven’t been designed with that in mind. Our guide actually fell off the raft twice going over said weirs. The first time I felt sorry for him but after the second time I concluded that he just wasn’t very good.

all the rafts at the Chaoyang Dock starting point

beautiful calm water and scenery HDR

approaching the first weir

getting closer

going over the weir

and splash! (this was the point I realised having my camera out wasn't such a good idea)

one of the many floating restaurants you pass

some of the other boats having water fights with lots of screaming

looking back at other rafts going over a weir

The money shot - we are oblivious, our guide in the water & the people behind in shock

our guide fell off on this one too

bamboo forests on a narrower section of the river

getting a little crowded

Despite the crowds, restaurants and souvenir photo stations after every weir (which actually got a priceless shot of our guide falling off) it was a nice way to spend 2 hours with some more beautiful views of the Karst peaks beside the river and a little excitement going over the weirs.

We had actually hired mountain bikes to get to the Chaoyang Dock and they arrange for your bikes to be driven to the end of the cruise. They weren’t the most comfortable though, or perhaps I hadn’t been on a bike for a long time, so after riding back into town for lunch we decided to chill out that afternoon and enjoyed some Scrabble games on the deck at the hostel while sipping on some delicious honey-banana milkshakes.

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We arrived in Yangshuo and caught an illegal taxi to our hostel but I had to give him credit as he had a stack of business cards from all the hostels which he handed to me and said “which hostel?” I simply found the card for Tripper’s Carpe Diem and we were off. Our welcome wasn’t the best at the hostel but it was completely out of their control. There was no electricity from 8am-7pm (the government was putting in new pylons), there was construction on the property behind (the farmer building a new house) and a terrible drumming racket coming from across the valley (an 88-year-old women had died and funerals here go all night with intermittent fireworks). This didn’t really matter as we were planning to do lots of activities over the coming days. This hostel also has an unbelievably comprehensive activities guide so we didn’t waste time and booked a horse ride for the following morning.

Margaurita on the white horse

our guide did a good job to getting this angle

lovely day for a ride

thirsty work for the horses

beautiful place for a horse ride

this coordination wasn't easy

trying to coax the horses out of the water

Looks like the horse has done this before

"good horse, good horse"

posing with our guides cowboy hat

check out the white horse smiling

In the afternoon we walked into town to catch a bus to Xingping where we were booked to go “Drifting” which is a form of white water rafting. Having rafted in Victoria Falls I was sceptical as to how good this would be but I was pleasantly surprised. They have taken a river and created weirs strategically at various points down the valley. and in some parts they have built up the river to create channels. This is all necessary because there are no guides as such, it’s just two people per raft and you hold on while you drift down the gorge. We didn’t take cameras and the souvenir photos were expensive so here are some photos I found on the net to give you an idea of what it was like.

Drifting in Xingping - photo by Dan Ouyang

the river was quite rough in places

crowded weir while drifting

Despite the crowds it was a lot of fun and rougher than you would think with some big drops on some of the weirs and a great way to spend 2 hours in the summer heat.

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The first order of the day was breakfast and so we set out to wander the streets in search of a very cheap Chinese breakfast of steamed buns and rice porridge. We turned left and walked around the block finding nothing and as we got closer to the hostel having come full circle we found what we were looking for but our Chinese failed us or perhaps it was a misunderstanding between dialects. Instead of pumpkin buns we got spicy pork but the red bean buns were good. Then it was on to Fubo Hill just around the corner from the hostel which we chose over the Solitary Beauty Peak because entrance was half the price (40 Yuan), it is next to the Li River and from a distance they look to be the same height.

Panorama of Guilin looking West from the top of Fubo Hill

Panorama looking South over Guilin and along the Li River from the top of Fubo Hill

Margaurita and I on the top of Fubo Hill, Guilin

The temperature was already up in the thirties and it wasn’t even 10 o’clock so we took an air-conditioned taxi and headed for the Reed Flute Cave which is a little way out of the town. Once again there was lots of tawdry lighting but the cave itself was quite impressive with some large caverns, formations and even a laser light show casting shapes on the ceiling of the largest hall. We tagged onto the back of another tour group who had an English-speaking guide to pick up on a few things although there was nothing about how old it was or how it formed but rather what imaginary thing the formations resembled. They even pointed out a mound of limestone that they had labelled Father Christmas.

Some of the impressive formations in the Reed Flute Cave, Guilin

One of the large caverns with coloured lighting

The lighting actually made this cityscape formation and reflection look pretty cool

So much for beating the midday heat as we were finished at the Reed Flute cave before 12 o’clock. The heat was pretty stifling so we took the opportunity to head back to the hostel and ask for help booking our train tickets home, still not sure how many days in advance we could buy them. They said they could help us but with a 30 Yuan service fee (for the middle man to take a taxi to the train station and stand in line) which we thought was a bit steep. We decided we would try on our own as well as trying to find a travel agency to book a bamboo raft to Yangshuo. After walking around for half an hour we still hadn’t found a travel service when I looked at a pamphlet we had and recognized the building and where it was. They couldn’t help with the bamboo raft but they had a train ticket office however they said the soft sleeper tickets were all sold out until the 15th and we needed to leave on the 11th. They then suggested we try the train station offering no explanation as to why, if they had no tickets, the train station might. Slightly panicked we caught a taxi straight to the train station were the queues were all 20 people long and the board with the train schedules above the tellers showed no tickets for any of the trains on the dates we needed. After standing in queue for a while it became apparent this was going to be a lost cause and so we went outside. Not knowing what to do we tried an official looking China International Travel Service (CITS) office in the station parking lot. The guy behind the desk spoke very good English and said the trains were indeed all sold out but why don’t we take a soft sleeper bus. He told us it was faster (15 hours), slightly cheaper(10%) and there were 2 buses everyday. Sold we handed over 840 Yuan for two tickets and got a hand written receipt with his cellphone number on it and he told us to come back at 3:00pm the following Monday (30 minutes before the bus departs) to collect our tickets. My suspicion was first aroused when I handed over the cash and he gave me change from his wallet and the lack of actual tickets concerned me somewhat but what else could we do. We thought about a flight but that would be twice as much. Having helped us with tickets home we asked about the bamboo raft but his prices were no better than the hostels and with my doubts on the authenticity we decided to just book the raft through the hostel.

In all the panic and stress we hadn’t had a chance to get lunch so we had a late snack at 4 and deemed it too late to get to Tunnel Hill Park so settled for the Elephant Trunk Hill, a must see according to guide books, and it was actually pretty good. We were lucky enough to catch the afternoon show of a cultural performance and the soft late afternoon light which made for some good photos.

playing a Reed Flute

standing on knives

Elephant Trunk Hill with Tunnel Hill Park and pagoda in the distance

posing with some Cormorants that locals still use to fish in the river

Looking down the Li River from the top of Elephant Trunk Hill

Karst peaks surrounding Guilin, silhouetted in the afternoon sun

Margaurita and I in front of Elephant Trunk Hill

It was a nice way to end off what had been a stressful afternoon and once back at the hostel we booked our bamboo raft cruise to Yangshuo for the next morning with pick-up at a decent 10:00am.

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After a decent breakfast in the hostel our tour guide arrived and spoke no English which didn’t bode well for the rest of the day, oh well. After stopping to collect a few other groups from different hotels we headed out first to an old village with some temple or other (they really don’t interest me), a street of curio sellers where I bought a painting of Guilin mostly because it was so cheap and some that was about it when we were herded back onto the bus.

Old lady selling salty hard-boiled eggs

Me not excited about another temple with souvenir shops in the background

An old street through a traditional village

Traditional Chinese buildings

As we were walking to the bus the tour guide came up and was asking us for money and we tried to explain we had already paid at the hostel. However it appeared she wanted 65 yuan more for the next part of the tour and she made out like it wasn’t optional and the others had already paid this. A little annoyed at we just shrugged our shoulders and said no to whatever the extra was for. She seemed frustrated but we just couldn’t communicate. We then stopped and everyone got off the bus the lady again came to us to try an explain, with no English, why we should pay the money. It would appear that the whole group couldn’t continue unless we paid and could all stay together. Then a Chinese girl nearby who spoke English helped translate for us and we established that the money was for an extra part of the tour and it would take 2.5 hours so it wouldn’t really work if we just wanted to wait for the group. Frustrated we paid the extra and hoped it was worthwhile and it was as you will see.

The entrance area to the Crown Cave, Guilin

Stands of curios as we enter the Crown Cave

This train ride was quite cool but went too fast to appreciate the cave

More tawdry lighting and curios deep in the Crown Cave

a nice boat ride on a river at the bottom of the Crown cave

Low ceilings and beautifully clear water in the depths of the cave

An underground waterfall (It cost an extra 5 Yuan to see this)

Mold growing on the limestone at the bottom of the cave - probably not helped by all the curio sellers and all day tawdry lighting

Exiting the Crown Cave by boat onto the Li River (this is what we had to pay the extra 65 Yuan for)

Worth it I think for this panorama from the dock

Despite the mold, tawdry lighting and endless curio sellers throughout the Crown Cave it was a worthwhile visit with lots interesting things between two boat rides, a train ride and a barge trip back to our bus. Next was lunch (not included in the tour price) at a farmers restaurant (really just meaning fresh produce) on the edge of a rice paddy and thankfully for us our Chinese was good enough to order some well-known dishes together with just pointing at some other tables dishes saying we wanted what they had. After lunch it was back onto the bus to travel to the Gudong Scenic Area, a National Park of China. Here there were a few more surprises like 5 Yuan for some bamboo sandals and a helmet to climb through a waterfall and optional zip-line and rollercoaster activities which was actually pretty fun.

The waterfall we climbed up in bamboo sandals

A cool suspension bridge after climbing up through the waterfalls

The optional (25 Yuan p/p) rickety but fun roller coaster we took down from the top of the mountain

Our bamboo raft guide back to the entrance of the Gudong Scenic Area

Although there were some extra costs that it would have been nice to know about before hand it was a fun afternoon and we were quite tired by the time we got back to the hostel, just in time to catch sunset on the roof before going down for the buffet dinner special the hostel was putting on.

sunset from the roof top of the Ming Palace Youth Hostel

We met an Australian couple at the buffet function who gave us some great advice on what was worthwhile to see and what to skip. So the next day we decided we would do our own thing and avoid Chinese lead tours. Itinerary was Fubo Hill in the morning, Reed Flute Cave in the heat of the day and Tunnel Hill Park in the afternoon.

 

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