Posts Tagged ‘traveling’

Chinese Bridge Hangzhou

Chinese Bridge Hangzhou

After leaving Hong Kong, our journey led straight to the East of China, with an involuntary stopover in Guangzhou where we were stuck for the night due to unavailability of trains (yet if not for these circumstances we would have never had the pleasure of residing in a funky hotel with golden curtains and a purple sparkling sink!!!).

Temples in Hangzhou

Temples in Hangzhou

Our first stop in the East was Hangzhou, known China-wide for its picturesque lake surrounded by gardens, temples and pavillions. We spent a few days walking and cycling in the area. We strolled along causeways that traverse the lake, lined by willow trees, visited the many beautiful Chinese parks (and admired the lotus plants growing in the water everywhere- and yes, it is true what they say about the lotus effect) and paid a visit to the national Chinese tea museum (tea tasting included). Now we are truly up to date on this national beverage, from its origins in Yunnan province to present day preparation and varieties.

Card player in a park

Card player in a park

Our next stop was Shanghai, with its 19 million inhabitants the largest city we have been to on this trip. And yes, it is big, but a well developed and efficient metro network makes it easy to navigate. We walked a fair bit, taking in everything from the historical 19th and early 20th century buildings along the riverfront to the fancy shopping and dining districts. The contrast between the epicenter of business in town with all its mighty skyscrapers could not be more marked when compared to what remains of old Shanghai (and that is precious little….). Think 500 m high monsters of steel as opposed to winding alleyways with ramshackle houses and street eateries; polished malls and fast food chains rather than fresh produce markets and bric a brac shops with their goods spilling out onto the road.

World Financial Center Shanghai

World Financial Center Shanghai

Old Man ignoring the pace of the city

Old Man ignoring the pace of the city

Shanghai Skyline

Shanghai Skyline

One evening, we ascended one of the immense towers, having a drink on the 91st floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. The bar is part of the Hyatt Hotel (the rooms are all located between floors 87 and 90- pretty impressive views if the smog allows).

View from the 91st floor of the World Financial Center

View from the 91st floor of the World Financial Center

Given its sheer size, traffic is a major issue in Shanghi, with immense road arteries cutting through the city- we found one of the stacked intersections and managed to take some impressive pictures from an nearby apartment building.

Elevated Highway in Shanghai

Elevated Highway in Shanghai

The night before moving on to Bejing, we met up with a friend of mine from Maastricht who now lives in Shanghai with his wife- small world!

The journey between Shanghai and Bejing was exciting in itself as we took one of he new high-speed trains that manages the 1300 km distance in 5,5 hours- at speeds of around 300 km/h for most of the trip… Welcome to the future.

Chinese Bullet-Train

Chinese Bullet-Train

1300 kilometers in under 5 hours

1300 kilometers in under 5 hours

sdv

lladf If Shanghai is everything that embodies progress and modernity in China, Beijng surely is its anti-pole, modern but still firmly rooted in history. The latter’s weight is more clearly felt around the capital, also the governmental presence with its firm grip on society becomes more apparent.

Old Man playing traditional music in a public park

Old Man playing traditional music in a public park

While waiting for our Mongolian visa, we had plenty of time to take in the many sights around the city. Of course, there is the (in)famous Tian’anmen square (which makes one wonder how many security cameras can be mounted onto street lights around a supposedly public square- the answer: a lot), there is the Forbidden city, the Summer Palace, dozens of parks and gardens, historical streets and so called Hutongs (old living and working quarters around the inner city, with narrow alleys and small houses).

Tian'anmen square

Tian’anmen square

We spent a day each at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. The former reminds of Hangzhou with its lake, gardens, temples and pavilions. The Forbidden city is impressive not only through its sheer size and history buy also due to the detail devoted to the execution of the buildings- it definitely is a masterpiece in architecture.

Chinese people just like to dress up for their photographs

Chinese people just like to dress up for their photographs

He just didn't feel like joining his tour group

He just didn’t feel like joining his tour group

wfwregwrgwergerg wrgwgwrg wrgwgwg wrgwgwrgr wrgwgwrg wrg  

Of all the important things to do in Bejing, two are of course especially crucial- a visit to the Great Wall and eating Peking Duck. We achieved both. In order to avoid the tour bus masses, we choose a section of the wall that is further away from the city and officially not open to visitors- only that no one cares and locals are happily waiting for the (mostly Chinese) tourists that make their way to this remote stretch of the wall. We had brilliant weather and pretty much the whole section of the wall to ourselves, which gives a very good impression of the size of this amazing construction. And makes one appreciate even more what an achievement its erection was.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

Our last day in China is nearing. We are leaving the country with many new impressions, had our fair share of culinary adventures and would definitely come back again, as there is still so much to see!

Fiddling in the park

Fiddling in the park

You can't argue about taste, right?

You can’t argue about taste, right?

Shanghai at Night

Shanghai at Night

One of many kite-flyers in China

One of many kite-flyers in China

Thinking about a chess match

Thinking about a chess match

Greetings from the wall

Greetings from the wall

The two highest towers in Shanghai

The two highest towers in Shanghai

Shanghai Local with a fan

Shanghai Local with a fan

Lotus effect

Lotus effect

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I am writing these first impressions of our stay in the Middle Kingdom while speeding over the smoggy plains of Eastern China in a train on our way to Shanghai. Looking out the window there appears to be a layer of thick gray fog hovering above houses and fields, far away buildings are nearly impossible to see, merging with the haze.

Chinese Train

Chinese Train

The amount of pollution around here is scary to observe and makes one wonder what is going to happen in the future. It is of course not a secret that China is battling with severe environmental problems, but to see these first hand in their full impact on the population is a different story altogether.

We have spent about 3 weeks in China by now, which is nothing given the vast size of the country- you’d need a year to be able to at least get a glimpse of its diverse landscapes and culture.

Given our time constraints, we have opted for ‘hardcore city hopping’ as we call it. Travel distances are huge and thus take time, and navigating the countryside is rather difficult without any knowledge of Mandarin or Cantonese, so during our first visit to the country we will mostly see its metropoles- as such all our stories have to be taken as that- impressions from the city. The countryside would make for a different story altogether.

Typical Chinese House Front

Typical Chinese House Front

What can be said about Chinese cities (or the ones we have seen so far?). They are huge. 1 million inhabitants qualifies as  small place. There is lots of traffic, albeit way more orderly than in Vietnam (less honking- and electric scooters!!!). They are full of bland grey highrises- most apartment buildings seem to uniformly blend in with the often smoggy surrounds… There are veritable house jungles, one highrise next to the other, 30 stories or more, narrow huge towers dominating the cityscape everywhere. Then there is what one would call communist architecture- vast building complexes with an intimidating aura around them- everything is big and seemingly towers above you. The CBD’s are full of shiny skyscrapers.

On the edge of the city the image is somewhat different. Family homes exist, often tiled on the outside in kitschy colors, built in between community gardens. In the countryside, through which we passed on long train-journeys, small huts dominate, perched against hills or along rivers.

Tourist Crowds in Yangshuo

Tourist Crowds in Yangshuo

Some places are so big it defies imagination- Guangzhou, a city some 160 km north of Hong Kong has 12 million inhabitants. We started a bit smaller. After crossing the border into the ‘town’ of Hekou where we spent the night, our first port of call was Kunming in Yunnan province with ‘only’ 1,1 million inhabitants. It was a pleasant enough city, we particularly enjoyed the fact that we could finally use sidewalks as sidewalks again (not possible in Vietnam, where they are constantly blocked by food-stalls and scooters). Also, Kunming had a number of nice bars and cafes that made you want to linger rather than just consume something and leave.

China is definitely more comparable to the West regarding its development status (again speaking for the cities here)- consumption plays a major role in peoples life, shopping malls seem to exist at every street-corner, and rather than having the abundance of street-food like in Southeast Asia, fast food chains dominate in Chinese cities.

Mostly Chinese People floating through the beautiful landscape on rafts

Mostly Chinese People floating through the beautiful landscape on rafts

There is a marked difference to Southeast Asia in a lot of ways, be that wealth or organization or cleanliness. China is a place in which we spotted subcultural movements again for the first time in a while. Many people own cars rather than scooters, there are big supermarkets rather than markets (even though the latter still exist). Also, obesity is a problem again- hardly existent in Southeast Asia.

In order to get at least a bit of a country glimpse, we embarked on a 24 hour journey through the Yuannese mountains to Guilin and on to Yangshuo. The area is famous for its karst mountains (much like in Vietnam, only here they are dotted along rivers). It is a truly beautiful place. We rented bicycles and did a 35 km tour through the countryside,  followed by some rock-climbing the next day. For me, it was the first time while Nico had previously climbed- but for him it was the first real rock cliff, too. It was a lot of fun, climbing up the karst rocks and enjoying the beautiful view from above- and exhausting. Thinking we did quite well, we later walked up onto the so called Moon Hill only to be shown by the pro’s what climbing really is- people mastering the craziest walls with apparent ease- overhangs and all. We have a lot to learn….

One of the pros climbing (pictures of us were not that spectacular)

One of the pros climbing (pictures of us were not that spectacular)

The next station on our journey was Hong Kong- which merits a separate article- thus, here end our first impressions of Chinese life- more to follow soon.

Pros Climbing

Where the pros climb. They guy from the picture above climbs up on the inside of the gate (upside down), the guy below is where the red sqare is

Find him on the wall above

Find him on the wall above

Read Full Post »

Yes, we are still alive and the blog-entries for Vietnam are done and dusted, but as we are already in China by now we encounter some difficulties with accessing our blog. China is blocking all sorts of websites, as most of you will know, including facebook, You Tube, Wikipedia and most blogs, including ours. So we can only access our blog in certain places and most of the time the internet connection is so slow that uploading our photographs is hardly possible. But don’t be disappointed, I am sure I will find a way to work around this, until then stay tuned…

Vietnamese Woman

Vietnamese Woman

Read Full Post »

Cute Monkeys

Cute Monkeys

Our journey along the Mekong continued south into Cambodia- smaller than Laos, but with more inhabitants (around 15 million people). The streets got busier, the traffic got more intense. And the people were- incredibly friendly. Rarely have we felt so welcome in a place, with people stopping just to say hello, and even if they want to sell you something (“You buy something!” “Hey Mister, tuktuk”) it is always with a smile, which persists even if you decline.

We were astonished to notice that colorful pyjamas in all sorts of patterns seemed to be the latest fashion for many women on the street, worn while they went to the markets to shop, as they were cruising around on their scooters or just as they sat in a cafe with an iced coffee.

Anna and Simon in front of Ankor Wat

Anna and Simon in front of Ankor Wat

We started our tour of he country in Kratie, a town at the Mekong, from where we headed on to Siam Reap. An undeniably touristic place due to its location- right at the gateway to the biggest temple complex on earth: Angkor Wat. Most people have heard about Angkor Wat, and have a mental image of an impressively large building in mind, but it is important to note that Angkor is more than just Angkor Wat- it is a huge area dotted with temples of all different sizes and ages, the biggest of which is Ankor Wat itself. We rented bicycles in town and went our way to see what was once the capital of the Khmer empire- the temples are the remains in stone of what once used to be a bustling city of a million inhabitants, until the empire crumbled in the 15th century, and the area was deserted, allowing nature (and here, especially the jungle) to reclaim the temples, while the wooden houses slowly rotted away.

Ankor Wat

Ankor Wat

We did very much enjoy our adventure of exploring the many buildings- some are by now in a symbiotic state with nature, with huge trees sprouting out of roofs and temple walls, and wrapping  around stones and pillars. The temples are diverse in shape, size and architecture, many of them a maze of hallways and courtyards, other build high to impress by their size, most of them with elaborate stone carvings and incredible attention to detail. The Bayon, one of the more famous temples, sports more than 200 huge faces carved into stone, watching over you from above as you walk around the temple. We saw elephant statues, artificially created ponds, and bridges lined with statues of both gods and demons. Angkor Wat itself impresses with its sheer size- it is the biggest religious building on earth.

We spent three days around the temples, and used the evenings to replenish our energy by getting a massage- and a fish pedicure again, as in KL the previous year. Siem Reaps main street is full of fish-tanks containing “Dr Fish” that nibble on your dead skin cells, a very ticklish affair- Simon was laughing through the whole 15 minutes of it. Before heading on to the capital, we stopped in Battambang, a city to the left of the Tonle Sap lake that forms the heart of Cambodia. We went on a tour to the surrounding countryside, which included a ride on a bamboo train (merely a bamboo platform on wheels- and it goes fast, very fast), as well as a visit of a temple on top of a hill and a bat-cave. The bats begin flying around 6.30 every night, and it is amazing to observe, how the formerly empty cave opening in the mountain turns into a bat-highway all of a sudden, as millions and millions of them leave their sleeping place to hunt for food.

The mountain is also home to a reminder of Cambodia’s troubled past- the so called killing cave, used by the infamous Khmer Rouge during their murderous regime to dispose of people they had clubbed to death at the caves. We found out more about the Khmer Rouge during our stay in Phnom Phenh, where we visited one of the secret prisons from back in the days, in which people were subjected to unimaginable tortures for crimes they had never committed, accused of treachery and sabotage on no grounds- and many of the perpetrators still walk free and live unpunished to the present day, which is hard to believe.

All in all, we very much enjoyed the capital- it has a nice atmosphere, some beautiful old buildings, a constant busy bustle without being too overwhelming, a host of interesting markets, good food and again- friendly people. We spent a few days walking the streets, and even got to sample a “German” beer brewed in Cambodia! Heading on into Vietnam by boat, it was decided that Cambodia is a place to come back to!

Buddha Statue

Buddha Statue

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

Read Full Post »

We continued our journey southwards, to Kong Lo village, set in a dramatic landscape of karst mountains- as we all agreed, the area is dominated by vertical and horizotal lines: flat ricepaddies, above which the mountains tower, vertically rising from the flat land surrounding them, as if drawn with a ruler. Kong Lo is home to one of the longest subtarranean caves in the world- we boated along the river that is slowly meandering through the dark. The caves are full of stalagmites and stalagtites, and re-emerging on the other side of the tunnel was an amazing sight, with the karst mountains rising high above our heads. (sorry, there are no pictures of the cave as it was too dark inside)

The Mekong

The Mekong

From there we continued further south, with a brief stop in Tha Khaek and a few days spent in Pakse, before making our way over to the 4000 islands to kick back and relax for a few days. As the name suggests, there are quite a few islands along this stretch of the Mekong river- we stayed on Don Det, and spent time walking around the whole island (it is not very big), as well as crossing the bridge over to Don Khon to check out a huge waterfall in the Mekong, with millions of litres of water cascading down rocks every minute. We found a lovely place to stay, complete with veranda and hammocks and riverview and thus had a few very enjoyable last days in the country- and we got to sample some delicious food again.

Lazy Pig

Lazy Pig

The food had been an absolute pleasure for our entire stay in the country. The Lao national dish is called laap, it is a minced meat salad, spiced with chilli (very spicy indeed) that is eaten with sticky rice (and the Lao sticky rice is really sticky, you can roll it into ittle balls that won’t fall apart at all). Other favorites include yeows, spicy pastes made from either eggplant or chilli, or peanut, eaten with boiled vegetables and sticky rice. Then there are the soups. They come with rice noodles, with either chicken or pork (we had a braised pork one at a market in the north, in Muang Sing, it was one of the most delicious soups I have ever eaten). The soup seasoning is DIY again, like in Thailand. Every table has an array of sauces, chilli- and shrimppaste, and fresh greens such as mint leaves, beans, lettuce, cabage and slices of lime that are added to the broth. There are rice soups as well, and the usual suspects such as fried rice or noodles. We concluded our stay with a steamed fishcake in Banana leaves and all agreed that there could have been no better way to end our truly enjoyble stay in the country!

This guesthouse is only for jesus or people who travel with a paddle boat in their backpacks!

This guesthouse is only for jesus or people who travel with a paddle boat in their backpacks!

Read Full Post »

Beautiful Water-pools

Beautiful Water-pools

Laos is the least visited country in the area (apart from Myanmar, of course), which does not mean, however, that there is no tourists. It is a sparsely populated place (6 million inhabitants in a country the size of the UK), and very rugged and mountainous in the north, while flat in the south along the Mekong and hilly again to the southeast. The Mekong river forms the border to Thailand for a long stretch of its journey south.

We entered Laos by taking a boat across the Mekong and headed north after a nights stopover in the border-town. The monsoon had become quite heavy by now, with irregular intense downpours, but it has still not marred our fun traveling this far.

Dining in the rice fields

Dining in the rice fields

Bus travel in Laos proved to be a good exercise in patience once more, with bussed not departing until 2 hours after the scheduled time, stopping all the time for no particular reason (or, so that the driver could sit down and have lunch, but he failed to inform any of his passengers about this 30 min break, so that we all missed the opportunity to get some food ourselves…). We traveled alongside bags of vegetables and fruit, fish in plastic-bags (still alive) and motorbikes parked in between the seats. We had leaky roofs dripping water on us, or got entirely drenched inside a soorngataau (a public transport vehicle, a converted pick up with benches and a roof, but open on the sides), when the monsoon hit-  but we safely made it to all our destinations, and after all, who does not want to travel alongside chicken and fish every now and then. What caused Simon the biggest headache is the fact that most buses play music all the time- or show music videos alongside the tunes, too. And it is not good music (it has to be agreed, of course, that tastes vary, but why force everyone to listen to the same songs?)

That's my baby!

That’s my baby!

To continue with the journey, we made our way to Luang Nam Tha, in a valley surrounded by mountains in the north of Laos, where we rented bicycles for a day to explore the area (one very unimpressive waterfall included, after we had first sweated our way up a wrong(!) steep path). We passed through a number of villages, all with houses on wooden stilts (this is the dominant style of houses both in the North of Loas as well as Thailand), had to get Simon’s bike fixed, sat down for a drink of water with an old man and exchanged lighters with him and at night explored the markets.

The next days brought adventure- we rented a scooter and a motorbike (Nico taught himself how to ride on youtube…) and we drove to Muang Sing, a village close to the Chinese border. It was a beautiful cruise through mountainous terrain. There are many ethnic minorities in Muang Sing, and the surrounding mountainside is dotted with villages of the Hmong and Akha tribes, to name just a few. We went on a trek the following day, passing through villages, rice fields (the rice planting was in full progress), and up a mountain through dense forest (very sweaty affair…). Finally, there was lunch on top of the mountain with our guide, extremely tasty pieces of pork, Lao sticky rice, chicken and bamboo shoots. After re-descending and making it back to the village, we took our bikes for another cruise and nearly accidentally drove into China- the border post was rather unassuming.

Monks collecting alms

Monks collecting alms

Our journey continued over bumpy mountain roads via small roadside villages, all complete with huge numbers of pigs and chicken roaming the streets and finally brought us to Luang Prabang, famous for its richly decorated temples. We went exploring around the city, followed by enjoying the view over the Mekong river from atop a hill.

Our next stop was Phonsavan, the location of the Plain of Jars- as the name suggests, there are jars. Many of them, all made from stone, some of them huge, scattered around he countryside just outside of the city. And nobody really knows where they came from, and what purpose they served. Phonsavan has another, darker heritage, too, though. During the Vietnam war, it was one of the most heavily bombed places in Laos (and Laos is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth- the U.S. dropped bombs to interrupt smuggle along the Ho Chi Minh tail, and to destroy communist groups gathering to fight the enemy, despite the fact that Laos had been declared neutral territory). It is estimated that after the war, 80 million pieces of unexploded ordnance remained hidden in or just above the soil in the country (of the 2 million tons of bombs dropped, 30 % failed to detonate), and these have caused many casualties. The plain of Jars, for instance, is only safe to visit in certain areas that have been cleared of bombs, and there are still visible bomb craters everywhere.

Items made of bombshells

Items made of bombshells

Clearance is in progress, but will take decades to complete. Meanwhile, some locals have adopted a more pragmatic attitude to this worrisome legacy and are using empty bombshells as building materials for houses, create BBQ’s or flowerpots out of bombs, or melt them to recast them as cutlery- we bought a set in a small village close to Phonsavan.

Our last destination in the North was Vientiane, the nation’s capital, complete with a mini arc de triomphe (the former French influence is still visible in many of Laos’ cities, especially in the architecture of brick and stone houses, but also through the presence of French cultural institutes, restaurants and schools).

Here ends the first account of our impressions around Laos, soon to be followed by our adventures in the South!

Another Waterfall

Another Waterfall

Read Full Post »

After Nico had already been adventuring in Myanmar for nearly 3 weeks, Simon and I finally joined him in Asia to begin the journeying together again.

First port of call in the region was Bangkok, after a day spent in KL on a stopover. Before being joined by Mr. Nico, we used our time exploring the sprawling mass of streets that is Bangkok- and sampling excellent Thai food from the many street stalls that can be found literally everywhere. Boy, did we have to get used to spicy food again, after all the Western meals of the past months (but I can proudly state that by now, we are all happily adding copious amounts of chilli to all our dishes- training is everything..).

Chicken Feet Skewer

Chicken Feet Skewer

There were so many culinary discoveries since we arrived in Asia, I don’t even know where to start. Not all of them make for good photo material unfortunately, so I will just describe them as best as I can. Thailand is of course famous for its curries and tom yam soups (spicy and sour soup with lemongrass, ginger and seafood or meat) as well as for rice noodle soups with various kinds of meat that you season yourself with sauces (fish-sauce) and chilli, as well as adding greens to the bowl, such as cabbage or beans. Thai fish-ball soup is particularly excellent….Then there is what we referred to as ‘meat on sticks’, wooden skewers with all sorts of meat or fish that are grilled on a barbeque- they make for an excellent snack. Grilled dried squid is also a specialty. We tried boiled chicken feet for the first time in our lives, and I have to say, they are very tasty and tender!

Another temple

Another temple

We explored the Thai capital by visiting markets and temples (the latter are rather ‘sparkly’- lots of gold and reflecting mirror tiles), and even having a look at one of the temples of commerce- a huge shopping-mall. The rest was spent sapling food before we met Nico and headed north to Sukhothai,  a city that was the seat of one of the early Thai kingdoms. Many of the old temples still remain (albeit in a crumbling state), so we rented bicycles and cruised around the former capital.

Sweet Couple

Sweet Couple

From there, our path led us north to Chiang Rai, which we used as a base to head deeper into the mountains- to Mea Salong, a small village with a significant Chinese influence (and amazing grilled pork-legs…). We hiked to some villages in the surrounds (the North of Thailand, as well as Laos and Vietnam are famous for the diverse ethnic groups or  hill tribes that live in the region, mostly still in very traditional ways, each tribe with their own dress and customs. Many of them sell jewellery or embroidered fabric at local markets in the area).

Back in Chaing Rai we explored some more temples, got a massage, and ate some more delicious food before heading on to the border to cross into Laos- thus ending our brief visit to the country, but we will sure come back for more (hopefully in the not too far future!)

Local Petrol Station

Local Petrol Station

Templee!

Templee!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »