Sunshine warming the urban-rural clash landscape
Leave the Pigeons alone!
Light on lake and gazing through the fountain
Only got slightly cold walking to the centre of the fountain…
For me, Guilin was a first. For my travel companion, he had visited 10 years previously. He remembered this part of China as possessing great natural beauty, a rural kind of charm. This kind of beauty remains in fragments:
But as with anything, development is a double-edged sword- and as we ventured away from the Reed Flute Cave back to our van, the same machines creating for Guilin were also marring the landscape of what used to be an untouched fishing village.
See the crane- top right hand corner
But all was not lost, because the Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbishan) provided us with a scenic snapshot to enjoy. Better still- whatever age you are- you’re never too old to enjoy a park (well that’s my theory).
The Elephant Trunk Hill gets it’s name from the shape the rocks form, resembling an elephant drinking from the River Li. Entrance cost CNY 75 and you pay more if you wish to climb the hill.
Apparently, there are carvings in the rocks which provide information on the attraction, but you need someone with local knowledge to give more information about this. We decided not to climb the hill due to budgeting restrictions.
However, we did enter the “lovers park” (not awkward because, more than anything else, it was all humorously bewildering to my friend and I).
The park area is full of steel framed statues and larking around is a must:
Minnie and Mickey being all cute And the Garden of Eden- weird statue style
So basically quite unlike parks in the UK. Kids look away now.
Though we didn’t know this at the time, parts of the park can be lit up at night- we figured this out upon seeing a tree with lights hanging down from the branches. So as a tip, perhaps this would be the best time to visit the Elephant Trunk Hill Park. However, entrance into the park at night is more expensive, so do take this into consideration.
From the park, you also get views of the river:
By now, we had completed both the Reed Flute Cave and the Elephant Trunk Hill and we were feeling incredibly hungry. We consulted a park map and located a restaurant on the edge of the park, overlooking the River Lijang. The Homa Cafe is a hidden delight- waiting staff are friendly, and on a cold day- food is incredibly warming.
My friend tucked into a noodle dish whilst I enjoyed tofu, rice and stir fried vegetables. After swapping drinks (he wasn’t fond of his citrus, orangey tea but I enjoyed it), we returned to the area around our hotel in Guilin and explored the town during the late afternoon.
Our late lunch at Homa Cafe.
Our time in China was drawing to a close. But I still had a bit more time in Hong Kong before I approached the other part of my journey and settled down in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of months. And despite thinking I’d seen it all in Hong Kong during my first stint there (see the categories sidebar for my earlier blog posts on Hong Kong), it just so happens I was very wrong. The commercial capital of Asia still had far more to offer…
The Muslim Quarter…
Was the plan for late afternoon/early evening. After the gas canister exploding incident. To explain what happened in a bit more detail, a guy behind us was carrying a glass jar which contained the gas and I guess the pressure just became too high and then you have green gas and shards of glass coming towards you (part 1 of seeing Xi’an). As a stereotypical Brit, I decided I needed a cup of tea to return to a normal state of self. Our nearest coffee shop was a Starbucks and so we headed there on automation after washing our mouths out with water.
There is little I can say about Starbucks that you won’t already know but in this Starbucks in Xi’an, beggars walk through the door and actively badger customers for money. It was a strange thing to witness- we knew China had a huge divide between the rich and the poor, but had seen nothing like this in Hong Kong, South Korea or Japan. Staff asked the guy to leave, and soon later we followed.
We headed west of the Bell Tower (in the centre of Xi’an, which we had previously visited) and towards the Drum Tower. We walked around the Drum Tower and proceeded onwards until we reached a new scene- smoke dancing in the air, and a riot of colour; street food sizzling and people jostling around. We had reached the Muslim Quarter.
The bell tower at night Walking towards the drum tower
The Muslim Quarter
We walked through a sheltered market part of the Quarter- here, a range of weird and wonderful items were being sold. From the beautiful (woven Chinese scrolls and silk scarves) to the light-hearted (touristy souvenirs), slightly distasteful (playing cards on Gaddafi and Bin Laden) to the intricate (wooden carved ornaments and delicate teapot and teacup sets).
The indoor part market formed a circle, and once we exited the other side, the air was filled with the sounds and scents of fresh food being prepared; meat dishes in abundance although there were also stalls selling stews, soups and noodle dishes.
We walked past a stall where chefs were making fresh pasta, which gathered quite a crowd. Though undoubtedly heavy, the guys in question never hastened their vigorous kneading and movement of the dough.
The chefs making pasta
Then we walked back past the drum tower, glowing gold, silver and red in the night-time darkness, before finding a bus to take us to where my travel companion’s birthday dinner had been booked that night.
Trying not to get run over…
Was one of the biggest challenges in Xi’an (in fact, extend that to the whole of China). There is blatant disregard for a pedestrian; if a car or bus is moving- you better move or it’s the end of the road (literally). In a way, this attitude that everyone has almost gives you the feeling that life is cheap in China. There was one point where I was standing on an insubstantial little island in between two sides of an incredibly busy road and experienced something like panic. However, we made it onto a bus and clung onto the railings on the vehicle with all our strength as the bus lurched forward.
Eating too much at a birthday dinner…
Was a given. A lot had happened that day, from a mellow morning to an eventful afternoon and evening. But it was still my travel companion’s birthday. The final chance to show my appreciation to the long-suffering person who had agreed to spend a fair amount of time going round Asia with me.
Redford Indian Restaurant is located in Tang West Market in the Lianhu District and is number 1 on Trip Advisor. I had emailed the manager explaining the birthday situation and they were amazing- when we arrived, they had put balloons and a personalised “Happy Birthday” sign outside their restaurant.
The restaurant exterior (and the sign and balloons on the right)
The restaurant interior
The restaurant is beautiful and the staff are ridiculously friendly. We both went for Singha beers and then gorged on an Indian food feast that proved both of us have eyes far bigger than our stomachs.
The onion naan they served was probably one of the best naan breads I’ve ever tasted. SO GOOD.
Then they brought out a cream, fruit and meringue birthday cake for the person in question, which meant I got to be the most embarrassing friend I could be and sing “Happy Birthday”.
Happy Birthday Sugartastic!
Afterwards, feeling suitably stuffed, we meandered around DaTang West Market. We had very little time in Xi’an compared to our other destinations. Our final destination would be Guilin, what used to be a quiet little fishing town… however, as we soon discovered- things change.
Some photos of the different parts of the market
Was different. The station was Beijing West and it was full of people, jostling for space. In a tiny way, it conceptualised just how populated a country China is. Foreigners made up 0.1% of the station population. This was the local way of travelling, and a contrast to Beijing Airport.
To the train was substantial. But we made it.
The train travel…
Was comfortable. Large red seats. We had paid a little more to be in a better carriage, toilets were still squatters as is standard in China, and manners remain consistent throughout the culture.
Then we arrived at Xi’an North station. We got a cab and prayed the driver would not crash because it was seatbelt-less and there were metal grills dividing the front and the back seat- this could lead to a fatal injury. We settled in initially because it was late in the day. The next day was my travel companion’s 22nd Birthday.
For the birthday was simple enough to organise. We chilled in the morning, going to a Korean tea shop in a shopping centre near the Grand Metropark Hotel, where we were staying.
I can personally recommend the latte and the white peach tea!
The morning was chilled… we visited a shop called Yishion (kind of like a Chinese version of H&M and New Look) where we both found jackets and my travel companion enjoyed a McDonald’s lunch (we are connoisseurs of fine food).
Shop till you drop birthday style and fillet o fish anyone?
The afternoon is where we get cultural. We visit the Bell Tower of Xi’an, which resides as the central point of the city, a hub where four roads meet. To have a tourist attraction which was built around in order to provide the city structure is quite amazing.
It is beautiful; the outside is like overlooking a to-scale fully functioning model village. The inside is colourful and mesmerising, with a psychedelic roof and various ancient artefacts.
It contains a number of bronze cast-iron bells, prevalent in the Tang Dynesty. Why the tower was created is unknown, although there are legends surrounding it’s formation.
An hour later, we decided to move on from the tower. All was fine until…
A crash. Loud in my ear.
A gas cannister exploding- the green gas explosion…
unfurling through the air.
And worst of all- I froze.
I don’t think it did me any harm… but it certainly added an innovative experience to my travel companion’s birthday. What was terrifying was the shock. And being only metres away as shards of glass exploded towards me…
It is a rare occurrence, but sometimes in life you do and experience something amazing. The day we went to the Great Wall, someone was either looking down on us and smiling or we were randomly dealt an optimal set of circumstances. Either way, you know something is special when hours later, you are still smiling from ear to ear.
Our day started relatively uneventful. We ate a big breakfast (which in hindsight was a very good idea, but at the time felt over-indulgent). I devoured my way through frosted flakes, yoghurt, breakfast tea, white toast, mushrooms, hash browns and 2 lots of scrambled eggs whilst my friend had similar (except with bacon and sausage instead of the veggie alternatives). Before we could set off for the Great Wall, we had to sort our transport out for Xi’an, where we were headed the next day. We booked train tickets and waited for a taxi to take us the hour and a half distance to the Great Wall.
Our cab driver was awesome- despite speaking only in Mandarin and me not understanding a word (as was typical of our China travels, my travel companion was incredible in that he speaks and understands are fair amount of Mandarin), he was so friendly, smiley and helpful. The journey to the Great Wall took an hour and a half and we were very excited when we arrived! We were seeing the Great Wall from the Mutianyu Great Wall, located in the Huairou District of Beijing. Upon arrival, our eyes met a large wooden sign baring the name of that part of the Great Wall. We meandered through the shops, cafes and restaurants that line the way to the coach station. Once there, we travelled uphill in a bus (for about 5 minutes) before arriving at another point where we were due to get the cable car from. We clambered up hill, in positive spirits but already exerting a good amount of energy.
The signs marking “The Great Wall Culture Exhibition Center” and “Mutianyu”.
The walkway to the coach station
Having completed the steep climb to the cable car station, we stepped into the deep red capsule and we were hoisted uphill towards the great wall. I tried to make conversation with my travel companion (who was suffering from vertigo but had decided the best way to combat it was to frequently face heights- he’s cool like that) and got our first glimpse of the Great Wall, a beige stretch of stone extended along the hill top.
Our first glimpses of the Great Wall
We arrived at the cable car terminal at the top and walked straight then left, climbing some stairs before we saw a viewing deck. From here, we climbed again and found a stone statue/plaque, marking the Great Wall.
A sign pointing us in the right direction Getting closer to the Great Wall
Through a little arch, we reached the flat ground of the wall itself. And it was spectacular; to the left, we saw trees, hills and in the far distance, an urbanized area. The sun was shining bright against a bright blue sky and to the left, a natural untouched landscape drew the eye- abundant with more hills and gravelly floor.
Our tourist moments…
The sun and the moon… on opposing sides of the Great Wall
And we walked and walked, across flat land, slight inclines, steeper hills with steps. Through majestic viewing towers, dark inside but for the burst of natural right that tore through the archway and offered some beautiful views.
The inside of one such viewing tower
The wall in all it’s glory
Since we had arrived so late (at 15.30, and the Great Wall shuts at 17.30), we knew there would be a point where we had to turn around. We got to a very steep looking high point on the wall. My friend said “maybe we should climb it?”, and after the realisation that I’d probably only get to do this once in my life, I readily agreed.
The little square in the lower-middle part of the picture was where we started our climb from
We started to climb the steps, high in volume (numerically) but narrow in width. About halfway up I felt my breath going in shorter bursts. My friend was starting to suffer from Vertigo again. The Great Wall had emptied because it was getting late. But we climbed onwards, reliant on each other for support. The sun had faded a bit now, sunset was approaching, leisurely creeping across the sky. We were confronted with some steeper steps that were shorter in width and so I took the lead at this point of the climb. And eventually we reached the platform we were aiming for, at the pinnacle of the steep ascension.
WE MADE IT!!! The sign saying “no tourist section past this point”
One of the climbers we met climbing back down
I don’t know if it was too much to call the moment euphoric. It felt close. We had reached a point which no tourists were allowed beyond. The wall was now silent aside from us and we met some qualified climbers (in jackets and climbing boots) who had descended from beyond the “no tourists allowed” point. They seemed really impressed that we had made it up to where we were, and were incredibly smiley. The ease with which they skipped back down the slope and onto the flatter parts of the wall was impressive.
Knowing that (at least amongst this expanse of wall) there were just the four of us, a stunning sky, the stonework of the masterpiece that is the Great Wall and the sun winding down on one side of the wall whilst the moon started to glow on the other, was unbelievable. We were just happy.
Pictures of the Great Wall at sunset
On the climb back down. Happy. A smile stretched across our faces. When we almost got stuck in a cable car because it was 17.30 and the guy who operated the cars thought all the visitors would have left by now (thank goodness for shouting)- still happy.
Because you travel for moments like this. I couldn’t begin to imagine what I’d feel on the Great Wall. And what I did eventually feel was akin to something magical (corny yes, but true). This was a highlight of globe-trotting. This was what reaffirmed to me that getting out there for a few months instead of heading straight into work or doing a masters was worth it. We returned to where we were staying and ate a ridiculous amount of food. The next day we would be heading onto Xi’an in China, just in time to celebrate my travel companion’s 22nd birthday.
North of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City stands majestic, a dusty cinnamon red adorned with beautiful flower beds at the front and guards standing tall, stationed along the width of Tiananmen Gate.
Guards positioned outside the front gates of the Forbidden City
I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the Forbidden Palace; upon entry, we decided to pay a little extra to enter the Imperial Museum, which lies just before entry into the buildings which form the Forbidden Palace. This includes interesting historical facts and artefacts relating to rulers and their links to the royal structure. It’s well-worth a visit if you have time- beautifully maintained and laid out. Most information plaques are in both Mandarin and English although some information is just in Mandarin.
Part of the Imperial Museum
The view of Tiananmen Square from the Imperial Palace Museum
On top of increased awareness of the history relating to the structure, you also get a very impressive view overlooking Tiananmen Square.
An interior shot
There are some parts of the Imperial Palace in which photography isn’t allowed. Interestingly, it was some of the outdoor areas which were more heavily guarded than indoor. Security guards here wear civilian clothing (unlike those who stand at the gate) and are polite but firm when explaining that photos are forbidden (there are no signs, and note that in most areas this wasn’t an issue). We ventured onwards to buy tickets into the Forbidden City itself.
The queues to buy tickets into the Forbidden Palace
Some images as we approached the main square
And then you come across the main square- majestic and full of people. We ventured straight ahead, following the crowds. The sheer size of the buildings and courtyards are breathtaking to behold- it makes you understand why “Forbidden City” is a more fitting name for it than simply a castle or court.
Onwards we walked to Tai He Dian (Hall of Supreme Peace). We also came across Ri Gui (a sundial) which was made of white marble and placed in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in order to represent the emperor having the highest power to grant time to all the people in the country.
The sundial in question Buildings surrounding the sundial
We also saw Bao He Dian (the hall of preserved harmony) and Qian Qing Gond (the palace of heavenly purity). Artefacts used from when the palace was inhabited are dotted around the Forbidden City. Below is a Copper Vat which was on display since Copper and Iron vats were used as fire-fighting equipment in the palace. The Palace Museum has a total of 308 copper and iron vats of various size.
Finally we roamed around the Imperial Gardens before exiting the Forbidden City from a different entrance/exit to that which we arrived into (it felt like it were on the opposite side, but so vast is the infrastructure and so similar do all the buildings look that it’s hard to tell).
Map of the layout of the Forbidden City
We had been inside the attraction for a good few hours and planned to have a substantial dinner so decided to look for somewhere to go for coffee. After turning right out of the Forbidden City and walking for about 10 minutes, we found a little cafe called the Oasis Cafe. We entered for a few reasons 1) the trip advisor sticker on the door which I’m ashamed to say I got really excited by 2) we had discovered somewhere lovely of the same name (a bar/restaurant place) on Jeju Island and 3) coffee is coffee- and we needed a sit down.
It is really friendly inside there. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of European customers but also some locals too. And the pizza is really really good (it was just a snack, I promise).
After the cafe, we decided to head to see Tiananmen Square at night. Just as a sidenote, we went to use some public toilets and despite the smell being pretty grim, we were amused by this sign that we found outside:
Point 2 translates as “urinating into the pool… you are best…”
Onwards we went to see Tienanmen Square and Forbidden City lit up at night.
The Square at night
And the City stands just as breathtaking as during the day, but without a flock of curious visitors transcending through the gates:
As if to reaffirm the beauty of the place, lights give off a golden glow as they are scattered in lines behind the flower beds.
So that was our day at the Forbidden City- amazing, and well worth a visit!
Bakeries and patisseries are rife in Hong Kong. Note to self: try an egg tart (bottom middle cake).
To be honest, I’d eat any of them!!!!
A street in Fortress Hill.
Advertising Halloween, Hong Kong Style, Laforet Shopping Centre (a less than conventional approach to advertising a scary holiday).
My travel companion pandering to the awkward vegetarian
Sichuan style noodle soup (dam dam mein), steamed vegetable dumplings, dipping sauce and at the front of the photo…
Pan fried spinach buns (san jin bao). Despite initial scepticism (I thought nothing could beat noodles), these are unbelievably delicious and just a bit addictive!
From Central to Causeway, politics permeating.
Most efficient metro system? My travel companion wanted me to say “simplicity and efficiency absent from London underground”. Which might be true, but nothing beats the Metropolitan line (childhood bias).
Hong Kong mini-bus
First scenic (ish) shot of Hong Kong. The harbour in the background, skyscrapers in the foreground.
Thanks to “no name travel companion” for making the cheesiest caption suggestions ever (and since I lack that level of wit, I had to reject them or my envy would overwhelm me).
Hope you enjoyed this slightly different (to my usual essays) blog post!