I first went to Angkor Wat in 2005, and while there were plenty of visitors, it was nothing like our experience there last week. Tourism is booming in Cambodia and has definitely brought some changes. One of them is the inability for people to go climbing about on the temples as they please. In 2005 I snapped this shot of a monk climbing up the central tower in Angkor Wat. There was almost nobody else around and he had stopped to catch his breath, or perhaps just to admire the view and I happened to look up and catch him gazing out at the front of the temple complex. Today, you can’t just make your way up the crumbling stone steps, they have built wooden platform stairs on top of the originals, you have to wait in a long line to go up, and you are restricted to a brief 20 minute visit. It was sort of a bummer to not be able to wander at our leisure, though the new rules do make it safer, and better for the preservation of the temples.
Typically we have been almost the only Westerners everywhere we go. We see people on tours at the major sites, but with the exception of Yangshou we are often the only Western people on the streets or in the restaurants, which means we get stared at a lot.
Actually, Justin seems to be quite famous here, people keep coming up and asking to have their picture taken with him, though they seem to want nothing to do with the rest of us. Often, once one person asks for a photo it opens up the floodgates and we occasionally end up with a line of people waiting for their turn for a photo. Every time it happens I also take a photo – we are going to make a whole album dedicated to these pictures.
People seem to be mostly fascinated with his hair (curly is certainly an oddity here) and he has been asked multiple times, and mostly by men, if it’s real. Another interesting behavior is that people, again, mostly men, want to pose with their arms linked though his. It’s as if they want to appear to be great friends. This was an altogether unanticipated phenomenon, but a highly amusing one.
Just outside of Hangzhou is one of the many bamboo forests where they filmed part of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Now, we’ve seen bamboo all over China, but this place is something else entirely. It’s a whole forest with the biggest bamboo I’ve ever seen, and virtually no other trees or plants.
We hiked up to the top of one of the peaks (shocker, more stairs) and had an amazing view of the area including a small town in one of the valleys.
Part of the way up there’s a zip-line of sorts that you can take across from one peak to the other, but we got there just as they shut it down and we weren’t able to take it, which was a HUGE bummer.
The whole place looked as if it were glowing green – perhaps like if you were trapped inside of an emerald. It was roasting (as per the rest of China) but ranks among the more incredible of the natural scenery we’ve visited here.
The last weekend we were in Shanghai, we took a quick trip to Hangzhou, which is billed as one of the most beautiful places in the area. It has a ‘magical lake’ that is wildly popular, but the area is also famous for its Dragon’s Well green tea. We decided to take Mr. Shin (Jenny and John’s driver) along with us, so he booked a cheap Chinese hotel – only $15 per room! The hotel was rather amusing, it was clean enough but it was a business hotel…which means there was an attached building where you could get a hooker. The rooms had the shower in a glass cage right next to the bed…
Unfortunately it was raining much of the time we were there, but it did clear up long enough for us to grab some beer and take a boat ride on the lake. It was a perfectly lovely lake, but I didn’t really get the ‘magical’ bit, something definitely got lost in the translation for us as we were reading about it. After the boat ride was over we wandered around the botanical gardens for a while. This was definitely worth it as there was, a huge variety of plants, many of which I’ve never seen before.
For dinner we went to a local restaurant where the specialty was a whole chicken wrapped in Lotus leaves and baked in mud. They bring it to your table and unwrap it, hot and steaming, right in front of you. It was very tasty, sort-of like roasted chicken.
A good side trip overall, though I’m sure it would be better without the rain, we had been very much looking forward to visiting the tea field.
The Longji rice terraces, more popularly known as the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ because of the way the terraces resemble dragon scales, are a few hour’s drive from Guilin. Since our flight back to Shanghai wasn’t scheduled to depart until 9:45 pm, we decided to squeeze in a trip to see them before we left.
We hired a driver for the day, and for the first time all trip it turned out to be a woman. I have to say, she was the craziest lady we’ve encountered out here – perhaps with the exception of the two grandmother-age women we witnessed literally having a fistfight in front of Mao’s tomb…but that’s a story for another time. She giggled at nothing, honked at everything on the road, and kept pointing out the houses (perhaps the only English word she knew how to say?) I’ll give her this though, she got us to the bottom of that mountain in less than 3 hours, and it was supposed to be a 4 hour drive.
Another day that was hot as hell and we were at the bottom of this huge mountain. We originally thought you could drive all the way to the top, but apparently you can’t.
We bravely donned our rice paddy hats, specially bought for the occasion (don’t laugh, those things are a LIFESAVER. There is a reason the locals wear them in the fields and it’s because they create a massive amount of shade when the sun is beating down upon you) and started to climb. Remember how I said there were stairs everywhere…yeah, someone should count how many there are to the top of this mountain because it might be in the millions. We were nearly as sweaty as when we were biking through the hills. It was so completely worth it though, the views are nothing less than stunning. There was a little village along the way where the Yao people live and you can stop for a cold drink and a little rest. The Yao women are pretty interesting, they have this super long hair that they don’t cut because of their spiritual beliefs, and they manage to bundle it all up into the huge masses atop their heads.
There weren’t very many people up top so we were able to relax and just enjoy the fact that we finally made it to the top of the mountain. The whole mountain has been covered in terraces so as to produce as much rice as possible. It’s a brilliant shade of green at this time of the year because the rice is about 6 inches tall and if there’s a breeze it looks like oceans of grass. We bought some books with pictures of it in all seasons, it’s one of the places I’ll definitely come back to if I can.
Unfortunatly we only had a few hours and it was time to head back to Guilin for our flight, but next time I’ll plan ahead and stay overnight in the village so I can explore the area a little more.
Original Post: August 11, 2007
I’m sure I’ve mentioned it, but it is really hot here. 100 degrees or more hot plus humidity. Just keep that in mind.
On the third day in Yangshuo we decided that the best was to see the area was to rent some bikes and cruise around the countryside. We hired a guide for the day because the roads aren’t marked and you can get lost really easily. We started off early in the morning to beat some of the heat, which was a good idea and we were able to ride for a few hours without getting too roasted.
Part of the plan was to take a break after a bit and cruise down the river on bamboo rafts. Touristy? Yes. Did we care? No. The guide arranged for our bikes to be picked up and we hopped on the shaky rafts that had two seats and a big umbrella. The river was super mellow and we just basically cruised along looking at the scenery and hanging out.
Every once in a while we would pass floating stands that had beer, water and some meat on a stick for sale. We also passed a couple of places where they had rigged up computers/printers on rafts and they would take your picture and print you out a copy right there. These were always right near the places where there was a drop in the river (not sure what it was, like a little dam or something that we had to go over) so the pictures looked like you were coming off a little waterfall. We declined to get one, but I was impressed they had managed to hook that up in the middle of a river.
At the end of the raft trip we were met by the guide and our bikes and we continued on our way. It was a two-hour ride back to the town and at this point the temperature was easily over 100. We were on little bitty dirt roads that had no shade but it was amazing – rice fields and mountains all over the place. There were also locals that wanted you to stop and give them a few RMB to take a picture with their water buffalo, which we finally gave into just because they were under the only tree we’d seen in over an hour.
At one point we stopped in a tiny town to get some water and rest for a bit. Naturally this was a huge spectacle and within a few minutes half the town and their kids were milling about this tiny little store staring and giggling and attempting to say hello. It was pretty funny, the kids spoke a few words of English and one little girl took me around the back to show me all the snails she caught earlier that day in the river.
When we finally made it back to the hotel (did I mention, Morning Sun Hotel, pretty decent, great location) I thought I was going to pass out. I have never been so sweaty in my entire life. It looked like had been rained on. I basically got in the shower, clothes and all, turned on the cold water and let the water bring me back to my normal temperature. After resting a bit Justin and I went for dinner at the Twin Peaks Cafe (West Street) and had the best Chinese meal I’ve had since I ‘ve been here. Good portion size, no bones (this is huge, we had bone fragments in nearly every meat dish we encountered) and loads of veggies.
Since it was our last night in Yangshuo we decided to hit up this river/light show that people had been ranting and raving about. I was expecting some dinky little place with a few chairs a la the Kung Fu debacle in Beijing. In reality it was an enormous amphitheatre with real assigned seating! Someone said it packs in 3000 people per night, but I wouldn’t quote me on that. It’s on a wide part of the river and most of the show takes place on floating docks or on the bamboo rafts. Lots of the local farmers and fisherman participate in the show – there are a few points when the whole river is lit up with torches on boats. It was a really good show, if for nothing else than to see the lights on the water. Afterwards, it was back to the hotel to pack up because the next day we were going to head up to the Longji rice terraces…
Original Post: August 9, 2007
Yangshuo is a backpackers paradise stop. There are a ton of Western restaurants that serve cheap and decent food – you can get real eggs and toast in the morning instead of boiled duck egg, which quite frankly I never managed to develop a taste for. Many people speak English, and there are a million things to do. The town is nestled in the middle of the mountains, so there’s a big hiking, biking, rock climbing, rafting scene. There is also an abundance of caves that you can visit. We decided to go check out the Silver Cave, it got great reviews and seemed like it might let us escape the heat for at least part of a day.
To protect the delicate structure of the cave, you have to go with a guide in a group. This is not our favorite way to see the sights, but in this case it was unavoidable. It took about an hour to get to the caves and once there we realized this was going to be a huge tourist debacle. There were tons of people and you had to filter into winding, roped off lines like at an amusement park.
Somehow, despite all the Westerners we saw in town, we were once again the only foreigners. There was a sign in English that said we had to enter in groups of 40 and stay with the guide because they controlled the lights and without them we’d be lost in the dark. Right. We let ourselves get shuffeled in with a big group of people, keep in mind, people are staring and pointing and giggling at us the whole time, so it was a bit of a scene, and the tour began.
Have I mentioned that the Chinese people seem to LOVE LOVE LOVE fluorescent lighting? I am not kidding, it’s a little like being in Vegas, even in the small mountain areas if they have a downtown. The highways in Shanghai are totally lit up as are many of the big buildings, which usually have patterned lights dancing along the outline of the building. Restaurants show their success with large displays of flashing neon. It’s a bit over the top. This little trend crept into the Silver Caves…the thing was lit up like a disco, complete with running X-mas lights in some areas.
There are all these beautiful rock formations and they are lit up in bright purple, green, yellow and red. The cave is truly gigantic, and is filled with stalagmites and stalagtites and some other formation that looks like the underside of a mushroom.
There were also quite a few underground water pools that reflected all the colors. The tour took nearly 2 hours, though we have no clue what our guide was speaking about so we spent the time just marveling at the structures and attempting to take a decent picture.
It was pretty sweet, but would have been sweeter without the million people and disco-theme. I would definitely recommend checking it out, but prepare yourself for the masses, and try to find an English speaking guide.
Original Post: August 9, 2007
After departing from Xian we arrived in Guilin to spend a mere 12 hours so we could catch an early morning boat to Yangshuo. We were met at the airport by the service staff from the hotel. It was nice of them to pick us up from the airport, but their real motive was to attempt to up-sell us some much more expensive boat tickets. The Li River cruise is an absurdly popular way to see the mountains in this area, and we had pre-booked the basic boat cruise through Jenny’s travel agent. The guy from the hotel tried to tell us that cruise we had already booked was the super-bottom-of-the-line boat filled with drunkards and thieves who would be puking all over the place. He even went so far as to tell us that they hadn’t even sold any tickets for this particular cruise for more than 6th months. He was so full of crap that you could smell it a mile away. We stuck to our guns and he finally, after nearly an hour of refusing to upgrade, booked us the trip we wanted.
The boat people came and picked us up at the crack of dawn the next morning and sure enough, all very nice looking people, no scummy drunkards to be seen. The tour was not in English, we were the only Westerners on the bus and so we had no idea what was going on. We might not have even figured out which boat was ours (there were at least 20 boats at the docks and we were left in the parking lot with all our luggage and some sort of instruction in Mandarin and general pointing towards the docks) but luckily there was a young couple from Hong Kong who took pity on us and helped us find our way since they were on the same boat as us.
I tend to get violently ill on boats, so I was a little nervous about the prospect of being on one in the middle of China for 5 hours. Fortunately the river was very calm so I survived without any major trauma.
The scenery is really the only reason to take this cruise since you can get to Yangshuo by car in about an hour. There are these crazy mountains all over the place, like huge skinny hills that jut out of the ground. I believe they are made of limestone and interestingly enough look just like the formations in Halong Bay where we went on a cruise with my dad in April of 2010. This area is what is depicted on the back of their 20RMB bills. It’s hard to describe how bizarre these things are, and the photos really don’t do them justice.
It was like being in a movie, or a painting, very surreal and beautiful. We spent most of the time on the deck just taking a million pictures, and then inside for a few minutes taking pictures of the food that was served – river crabs, prawns, veggies, something that looked like a hot dog…
We made it to Yangshuo all in one piece, fought our way through the crowds at the docks, and headed off to our hotel to relax and figure out a plan for the next few days.
Original Post: August 9, 2007
Xian is a small city near the middle of China, and its big draw is the Terracotta Warriors – literally an army made from clay that was buried more than two thousand years ago! We wanted to take an overnight train from Beijing, but it was completely full – a lesson in booking in advance – so we had to scramble for some last minute plane tickets. We arrived late at night and basically just crashed at our hotel – The Bell Tower Hotel – right in the center of the old town. You could see the actual bell tower from our hotel room. Since we only had one full day to spend in Xian, we decided to hire a driver to take us around because the busses are slow and the tours cost more total for three people than splitting the cost of the driver.
Our first stop was some sort of museum about an ancient group of people called the Banpo. It was interesting, if small, but in retrospect we should have skipped that and gone straight for the main site. We rushed through the next stop – one of the places where they make all the terra-cotta figures that you can buy in the stores/on the streets. This was a bit more interesting because you can buy ones that are life-size so they show you how they make it in 8 separate pieces and fit it all together just before they fire it. Surprisingly there wasn’t a lot of pressure to buy their wildly overpriced merchandise. You can however do the very very touristy thing of pretending to be a warrior. Which of course we did.
At last we made it to the site of the warriors! The ‘tunnels’ where the warriors were uncovered are still being excavated and they claim that they expect to find at least 8000 total pieces in the first section alone. Essentially, the place is a mausoleum for Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China as a united whole. He had thousands of life-size figures, with real weapons, and horses created and placed into a battle formation to ‘guard’ his tomb. The thing is, after it was all done and buried a bunch of thieves broke in and stole most of the weapons and broke a lot of the pieces. It was forgotten about and not rediscovered until the 1970s when some peasants stumbled upon it! The site is decidedly impressive, they’ve managed to repair a lot of the warriors, but they left some as they found them so you can see what it looked like untouched. All of them are supposed to have unique facial expressions and there are something like 12 different kinds of warriors – archers, foot soldiers, generals, etc. We spent about 4 hours wandering around and honestly, I could have spent at least a few hours more if we’d had the time.
The next day we had a few hours before our flight so we squeezed in the Big Goose Pagoda (another temple…starting to be templed out at this point…) and then headed back to the center to see the Drum and Bell towers. These were quite interesting, and we had missed seeing the towers in Beijing so we wanted to make sure we saw them here.
The drums are HUGE, maybe 15 feet tall for the biggest ones, and there are dozens of them that circle the whole top of the square tower. They have a drum show every few hours where performers come out and perform traditional dancing and music. We were lucky to be able to catch one of the shows and it was so loud it made my stomach vibrate. The Bell Tower is basically the same, only with bells.
I paid the 5Y to gong the biggest bell three times – also super loud, very fun, highly recommended!
At this point our time was up and we headed off to Guilin to spend a few days in the mountains.
Original Post: August 8, 2007
It was HOT HOT HOT in Beijing, so at the crack of dawn on our 6th day, we set out for the Chengde – in the mountains about 4 hours north of Beijing. The main reason for heading there was to see the Imperial Summer Resort, which is where the Imperial family would go to escape the insane summer heat of the city.
The Mountain Resort itself is gigantic, you could spend days just wandering around the whole site, which comes with its own little wall. We had limited time so instead of hiking the perimeter we took the tram which dropped you off at a bunch of key spots and let you wander about for a bit. There’s one section that has some Mongolian style yurts that you can stay in, which we might have considered doing had we known about it ahead of time.
We stayed in an awesome little hotel that is housed inside the grounds of the Puning Temple. The Puning Temple is a functioning (is that the right word? It’s still in use, not just a historic site!) temple with monks still living there. The hotel staff were incredibly nice and were all dressed up in costume. There was a theater in the basement and each night they put on a show about the history of the temple. It blew away the terrible Kung-Fu show from Beijing and had some beautiful dances, drumming and music. It was completely in Chinese…so we walked away with a fairly minimal understanding of the whole thing, but it was still great fun.
Chengde is a small town to begin with, the the hotel was pretty far off the beaten path so we stuck with the on-site restaurant for dinner. Unlike in Beijing, there were no English menus to be had, and I kid you not, there seemed to be not a single staff member that spoke a word of English. We were also the only Western people at the hotel. This made for an amusing attempt at trying to order food. The staff and other dining patrons were so accommodating that they took us around the restaurant to show us what other people had ordered, and we gestured and nodded and pointed a lot and they seemed to get the gist of what we were interested in. We ended up with a giant meal (Justin had to put his hand in there to show the scale) for only the three of us, and I have only a vague sense of what most of it was, but it was great!
The temple itself was beautiful and had many different spaces, as temples here generally do. In one spot as we were exploring we noticed there was a monk set up by a table with a line of people waiting to do something. You could pay him 10Y and he would tell you to pull a stick from a vase. The stick was long, narrow and smooth and had some writing on it and he would read it and tap the table next to him. The table held two crescent shaped stones and you needed to pick them up and throw them like dice onto the table. You might do this only once, or he would make you repeat the process up to three or four times. When he was satisfied with the way the sticks and stones fell he would choose a slip of paper from a box and send you on your way. Sometimes the stones would not fall favorably and he would send the person away with nothing. We decided to give this a shot and Justin and Jenny both got the paper on their first try. I got sent away with nothing 😦 We asked Mr. Shin what this meant and he said it either meant something very good or very bad but it would be difficult to say for sure. Helpful. As for Jenny and Justin’s fortunes, they were very cookie-like and said things like “Hard work is difficult at the beginning but will pay off in the end.”
This particular temple is my favorite from the whole trip. It had a very calm feeling to it and did not seem like just a huge tourist attraction. It also holds the worlds largest statue of Guanyin – the Buddhist Godess of Mercy. It is 22 meters high and has something like 42 arms. It was one of the most impressive religious statues I’ve ever seen, akin to the gigantic reclining Buddha in Bangkok. We were only there for 2 days to see the Mountain Resort and the Punin Temple, but you could easily spend more time there and in retrospect I wish we had.
Up next…Xian and the Terracotta Warriors!