Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hong Kong and China

A short flight on Christmas Eve took us to Hong Kong, where we were expecting an elaborate airport welcome from our holiday host Dave. Once again we were disappointed. There were no banners or flowers, we had to wait half an hour until he even turned up.

After two years of pretty grim Christmases away from home we were treated by Dave and Yoonji to a proper holiday experience, with a house full of people and a full Christmas dinner, including potentially the best parsnips ever made. Sammie looked pretty contented with her glass of wine and Christmas hat, I was just happy we had agreed not to buy presents.

After the festivities we started to explore Hong Kong, a maze of crowds, big buildings and expensive shops. We viewed the skyscrapers from a distance across Victoria harbour and atop the Peak, then spent an afternoon travelling through the centre on a double decker tram. We couldn't miss out on indulging in the height of Hong Kong culture, sampling the local trampoline park for an hour of flips, sweat and being 20 years older than everyone else in the building. The rest of our time was spent hiking, eating and playing an unhealthy amount of FIFA.
From Hong Kong we took a train into mainland China, stopping overnight in Guangzhou. With only half a day to explore, we headed straight for a romantic walk down the river. Here we spotted 21 dead fish, a dead cat and a bloke skinning alive a snake he had just caught, all this was seen through foggy smog so thick that you couldn't see the skyscrapers a hundred feet down the road. We had arrived.
After the delightful Guangzhou we took the train to spend some time split between the cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. In Yangshuo we rented bikes and rode out of the city to the River Li, where vertical mountains dotted along the misty river, perfectly replicating how we imagined rural China to look. This tranquility soon ended when we were back in the city down West Street, where neon lights surrounded western restaurants and an excessive amount of strip clubs.
We ventured out to have a look around the exotic fruit and veg in a local market, which was going well until we hit the meat section and saw the cages full of cute little cats and rabbits, with their mates already skinned and hung up. It was all pretty inhumane, they could at least have some decorum like in England, and do it on an industrial scale behind closed doors.

Our main reason for being in Guilin was to see the Dragon's Backbone Rice terraces, which we were told would have looked like an endless panoramic view of staggered stairs of rice flowing down mountainsides. The fog made it hard to see our feet, let alone the view. Our strict budget was seeing the usual successes and failures, with a lunch of delicious noodles and dumplings for 20¥, before a Haagen Daaz ice cream for 71¥.

After Guilin we went on our first overnight train, 26 hours on triple decker beds surrounded by people who didn't seem even slightly embarrassed about passing wind or groping their partners. Our destination was Chengdu and as soon as we got there we headed straight for the panda breeding center to spend a day watching some funny little bears rolling around. The next day we headed to Leshan, to see the 70 foot 1200 year old giant Buddha carved into a cliff. A few attempts to get a picture of the two of us in front of the Buddha left me questioning the Chinese's photography ability.

As a birthday treat for Sammie I'd arranged a two day, 64km hike up a 3099m mountain in -11 degrees weather. The first day we hiked 17km up continuous steps to stay in a Buddhist monastery with no heating and some fairly aggressive monkeys who took a real shining to our backpack. The next day, despite hiking 47km, was probably the best day of the trip so far. We were all alone walking in a snow covered winter wonderland, with the moon lighting up our path. By the top we were above the clouds, overlooking outcrops of mountain peeking out from below. I even treated Sammie to a snickers when we were back at the base.
From Chengdu we took an 11 hour train to Xi'an. Here we explored the Muslim Quarter, where craft markets were serving up jewelry, fresh fruit and sheep's heads. After visiting the city's encircling walls and pagoda we headed to see the Terracotta Army, where warehouses were filled with rows upon rows of warriors built to protect an Emporer's tomb from the equally sizable rows of pushy tourists competing for the best selfies.
After Xi'an we spent a couple of days wandering around Shanghai's skyscrapers, markets and dragging an insolent Sammie around a museum. We then headed on a 350kmph bullet train to our final stop in China, the capital Beijing.
Strangely enough the quietest spot we found in China was also the most famous, a group of 8 of us hiked 7km along the Great Wall, only passing about 4 locals. The wall meandered endlessly over the distant mountains creating a beautiful scene. Surely we need more leaders willing to invest in beautiful border walls like this.
The Forbidden City truly lived up to its name, with our two attempts to enter both resulting in failure as the 80,000 person daily capacity had already been reached. This was after queuing for hours in wind so cold that people were actually walking down the street backwards.

The rest of the time in the capital was spent eating some amazing food and visiting markets and palaces. Chinese New Year was an interesting experience, with kids down every street lobbing firecrackers about and setting off fireworks which were designed for loudness rather than looks.

After a worrying start China turned out to be pretty easy to get around and full of friendly people. After being warned off by so many people, the country more than exceeded our expectations.

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