Friday, April 25, 2008

Catching that run away train

It´s about time I told you guys a little bit about my time on the vodka train, the stuff you have been hanging out to hear about.

After my first relatively unsuccessful day in beijing, I returned to the hotel to meet the people whose personal space I would be invading for the next days. Not surprisingly, the tour group turned out to be a fairly motley crew. Despite the differnces in age (18 to 32), professions (students to coppers - I was the only research economist) and nationalities we all got along really well from the start. Following the initial introductions and our greeting from Alex, our honcho for the beijing leg, we went out for a bit of Peking duck and some beverages. After the meal which was pretty tasty, except for the five massive bowls of noodles ordered by Tim.

Next we hit the dodgy bars of Beijing. In the first instance we had to bargain for a good price on the beers as well as a hookah, having agreed a price, they then sent someone to the shops to get us our drinks. After a couple of drinks, we hit the clubs on the other side of the lake. Effectively our little band of 10 made up the entire clientèle we then got down to some serious drinking and bad dancing. It was a great way to finish what had otherwise been a pretty ordinary day.

The following day, we did the sights - the summer palace, the forbidden city and tiananmen square. The all the sights were pretty amazing, the summer palace is beautiful while the forbiddin city is also very impressive. One of the most interesting things about sightseeing in Beijing is that all the sights are so chocablock full of chinese tourists. Further, the chinese tourists got super excited about seeing anglo people. In particular, one guy Tim had dreadlocks which absolutely freaked the locals out, as did lauren with her height and red hair. In one case, I was pretty certain that one chinese lady wet herself in her excitement of getting a picture with Tim.

After a what felt like a really long day of sight seeing, a few of us, out our guides suggestion went to a kung fu show. The monks were really cool, and the show was pretty impressive, although it did turn out to be a bit of tacky play mixed with some cool acrobatics and crazy feats of strength. Following the show we went to the street market for dinner. While others might disagree, the food I settled on buying was horrible, particularly biting into uncooked squid. Unfortunately, this lead me to go to Maccas for something that I could be fairly sure wasn´t going to poison me.

The following morning we made our way to the ming tombs and then the great wall. After the wind and rain of the first day, the pleasant sunny conditions got us all pretty fired up (even if it was still under 10 dgrees). Although the ming tombs appear to be an impressive complex, the actual tour itself was a little dull. The chinese have a different approach to setting up there sights, were the artifacts tend to be removed and put into a museum, instead of with in the tomb.

After a bit to eat, we headed to the great wall. As a group, and based on Alex´s advice, we went to a section of the wall that is in excellent condition but relatively low on tourists. It was also made more cool by the fact that we could catch a toboggan down. It was at this point the group split up a bit, a couple of the girls decided to catch the cable car up, while the rest of us decided to walk. It was a strenuous but not difficult walk to get to the top of the great wall. Walking up also increased my appreciation of how hard it must have been to build the great wall, and the effort makes the views a little more rewarding as well.

We had heaps of fun on the wall, some sections of the wall were really steep and we had to take time to catch our breath on several occasions. Unlike many of the other sites we saw, there were also relatively few other tourists. For a bit of fun, we decided to do something a little stupid, but well worth it, that is we climbed onto the roof of one of the main guard towers for the wall. Well most of us climbed, Abbie, the youngest member of our group was hoisted into the roof in a group effort. Tim, Ned and I climbed up the outside of the tower. While the climb was particularly difficult, a slip in the wrong directions would have been fatal.

That night we were all a bit buggered and knew that the next day would be a big one, so the night was a bit of a quiet one for most of us. Two of our crew, Peter (the copper from NSW) and Tim, managed to meet a local and have an all night bender. As Pete was my roommate I was a little worried when he hadn´t made it back to the hotel 20 minutes before we were scheduled to head off to the train station for our first ride to ulaanbaatar. But, fortunately they both got back to the hotel, still well and truly drunk, with a few minutes to spare. We would make our april fools day train with our still in tact.

due to technical difficulties, pictures will follow later, but most are on facebook.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Beijing - part one

The flight to Beijing was rough, plenty of turbulence, but we got there in one piece. Despite my cold I was feeling pretty happy as I made my way through customs, even managed to get someone at the airport to write out my hostel's name in chinese characters - a necessity I would latter find. However, this is where my fun for the day ended.

It was cold and raining as I exited the airport and made my way to the shuttle bus. Unfortunately, what should have been a 45 minute trip turned into two hours. Getting off the bus at what I was meant to be the train station, I was greeted by nothing but moderately heavy rain. Having forgotten what it was like to be cold and wet, I soon became miserable as I found myself unable to hail a taxi. It took me another 2 hour before I would find the actual train station, the ajoining official taxi rank, and a taxi that was willing to pick me up. The systems for catching taxis in beijing are unique, as they only seem to pull in at certain spots. In addition, and despite the warnings I was quite unprepared for the complete lack of english speaking. Fortunately, I did make it to my hostel in one piece and what a beautiful hostel it was. I can highly recommend the Sitting on the City Wall Hostel to anyone travelling to beijing.

My first night in Beijing was a quiet one. I met some other backpackers who had just finished the Transmonglian railway coming from the other way, so I picked up a few pointers from them and then hit the sack. The next day I woke up and made my way to the hotel that the Vodka train group were staying at. After checking in, I decided I needed to get some clothes appropriate for the weather i.e. a beanie and some proper gloves. Being a little confussed about where to go, I ended up heading to what can best be described as Beijings bourke street mall. It was here that I suffered my first propper swindle of my travels.

Feeling a little bit low, as I was sick and couldn't find any cheap clothes (I thought that china was a mecca for cheap knock-offs), a chinese girl started talking to me. She was the first chinese person I had met who could speak proper english. As she was waiting for her friends she asked me if I wanted to grab a drink. Thinking that she just wanted to use me to practice her english, and me having nothing better to do I said yes. Somehow we ended up at a tea house, where she got the tea attendant to set up lots of different teas for me to try. Having just bought some tea at a reasonable but high price I figured, at worst I would be out $30. Then the bill arrived, she wanted me to pay over $300 for our teas. I almost cried, as realised how baddly I was being stung. After a great deal of protesting, I got out of the two house $150 the worse for wear.

While disappointed, I know from others that I have met since then that it could have been a lot worse. And at least now I know a lot more about tea. Life also significantly improved after I made it back to the hotel and met the rest of my vodka train tour group. But I will save that for my next post.

Getting out of Vietnam

The train pulled in from Sapa at five in the morning and after a little mix up with directions we made it back to the hostel. As I was not able to get a bed until 12pm, I decided that I should do some more cultural stuff and visit uncle Ho.

Having the beginnings of a cold I wasn't in the happiest frame of mind, so when I ended up taking another wrong turn, which resulted in an additional half hour walk, and some admonishment by Vietnamese soldiers for walking on the wrong path I wasn't in greatest of moods. My mood was further challenged by the confusing cueing system required to enter the mausoleum. Then to top it all off, my cueing experenience was further frustrated by having to listen to an obnoxious man from Wales and his polish wife, deride vietnamese culture and make antisemetic comments.

Fortunately, I really enjoyed seeing Ho Chi Minh, while it is true that he does look a little waxy, just seeing the set up and the reverance with which he is held is something unique to an Australia (unless you count John Howard and his obsession with the don).

After visiting the Uncle Ho, I decided it was time for a little R&R, so turning to my lonely planet for guidance, I went to one of the recommended hotels for a massage. The massage was very pleasant, however, I was a little surprised half way through, when I received the offer of a souvenir of my visit to Hanoi. While flattered by the offer as well as the many compliments regarding my handsome appearance, I politely declined.

I returned to hostel feeling pretty relaxed, but ready to check in to my room and have a little nap. This was followed by a visit to the water puppets. I managed to con one of the girls from the hostel to join me, as I always think that it is better to do these things in twos. The show was pretty cool, although after the long day, I did struggle a bit to stay awake towards the end.

After another power nap, it was time to paint the town red with "team swag" - my roommates from the hostel. It was a pretty big night, but the hightlight was seeing one of the most unappealing pieces of dancing I have ever seen. A random irish girl (not from our hostel) appeared to be what I can only discribe as "presenting" on the dance floor i.e. she put her hands on the floor infront of her and then swayed her bits at some unfortunate guy. To top the act off she started offering to fight other girls on the dance floor. Anyway all in all it was an adventure packed day full of fun.

Then next couple of days in hanoi were relatively uneventfull, did a few more cultural things. Hung out a bit with an irish guy named Fin - who is completely besotted with melbourne - and a German girl named Christina, who is also keen to return to work in Oz. I also got to catch up again with a few of the english people I have met while spending time in Vietnam. It will be great to catch up with them all again in a few months.

The only down side is that I ended up leaving vietnam with a bit of cold and no voice.

Final aside - I really enjoyed my time in Vietnam and would recommend it anyone wanting a fun holiday. There is plenty to do and overall the people are interesting and friendly. Personally, Sapa aside, I preferred the south of vietnam to the north. Ho Chi Mihn is such an exciting and vibrant city, and there isn't the same desire to deep fry all the food, as they do in the north. I look forward to returning to Vietnam some time soon.

Ha long bay, sapa

While in the north of Vietnam I did the two standard tours, Ha Long Bay (including Cat Ba Island) and Sapa.

The first leg was the much hyped Ha Long Bay. Having booked the tour with the hostel, and knowing many of those on the tour, it was always going to be a fun trip. The bus ride to Ha Long Bay was a barrel of laughs as, we had three tour guides all trying to outdo each other.

Ha long bay itself is pretty, and would have been far more enjoyable had the weather been good. Unfortunately, we couldn't really enjoy the sun deck on the boat due to the fog and rain. Overall, though this didn't pose much of a dampener on the trip. It wasn't too cold and we were still able to enjoy the cave and some kayaking.

The kayaking was good fun even though I snapped my paddle - too much strength - and ended up spending most of the time out-rigging. The food on the boat was also pretty good, as was the evening entertainment - Beers and karaoke. After I butchered a song or two, I decided to leave it to some of the irish songbirds on the boat to take of the singing.

The next day and night were spent on Cat Ba Island, given the weather. The island itself is quiet pretty however, it wasn't possible to take advantage of the beaches due to the weather. The following day was spent almost intirely in transit - we left Cat Ba Island, then went to Hanoi, where I waited for a few hours before jumping on the train to Sapa.

Sapa turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in Vietnam far more enjoyable than the mekong or ha long bay. The landscape was trully impressive, particularly as we scurried through the mountains and along the rice paddies. I was fortunate to have numerous helpers as we walked through the rice fields. Although I still managed to take more than a few tumbles in the mud. I ended up buying a scarf off the lady who helped me the most, and given the number of times she saved me for falling in the mud, it was a steal at the five dollar I paid for it.

I think the reason why the trip was so much fun was because of our guide, Chu. She was lots of fun, constantly taking us off the beaten path and then trying to hide and surpise us. We also got to meet some of her family and see her house. The first day was finished perfectly by a dip in some hot springs then a hardy dinner with a shot of rice wine.

The following day was spent walking to some more local villages and meeting more of the locals. The second days hiking was far easier than the first, however by the time the group got back to the town and had some dinner, we were more than ready for the overnight train ride back to hanoi and some well earned rest.

Again, I am having some troubles uploading the pictures to go with this post but they can be found at my facebook page.