Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Merry Christmas!

Well Christmas wasn't the same without family, friends and snow. We tried to enjoy the season over here, but as much as it looks like Christmas here with splendid decorations, the spirit just isn't the same. We headed out on Christmas Eve to have a drink in the Lan Kwai Fong area and found ourselves with thousands of people counting down to Christmas.
Here everyone becomes very excited about Christmas and celebrates with one massive street party. They count down at midnight like it's new years and the shops are open, what seems like all night, on Christmas Eve. The streets in the main Kowloon and down town Hong Kong area are closed off to car traffic and the police start their crowd management process called 'Pedestrianization'. It's was hard to walk anywhere as we were shoulder to shoulder with strangers all night. The police attempt to enforce one way pedestrian traffic on certain streets but it's pretty useless. Right at midnight we were stuck in the middle of a street trying to exit, it was worse then leaving a huge concert. It was all fun and interesting but nothing like the family filled Christmas Eve that we're used to.

Christmas morning was quiet. We stayed in bed till about noon watching Polar Express and eating our 711 breakfast :) The Kowloon street out our window was empty until about 2:00pm. We had always planned to see the movie, The Golden Compass, on Christmas day and when we finally arrived at the theater we discovered this was the same plan as everyone else. The theater was located in a mall and to our surprise all the shops were open and the mall was packed full of Christmas day shoppers. An odd sight for us. An hour before the movie we purchased some of the last seats available, good thing we don't mind sitting in the front row. While waiting we found a place to have lunch and then tried to find a quiet place to blog. We weren't very successful but in our search we ran into Santa Clause and were disappointed he wasn't off delivering presents to our friends and family back home.

The movie was great but it's a 'to be continued' one and now we have to wait for the next :( We rushed back to our small hostel room after and prepared for our 8:30pm traditional Christmas buffet at a hotel around the corner. The food was good and it was nice to have some turkey and cranberry sauce although desert was definitely the main attraction.

Once we were stuffed we headed back and phoned family and friends as it was Christmas morning at home. It was wonderful to talk with everyone and the best part of our Christmas day. We finally headed to bed around 2:00am, just when everyone else is getting ready for turkey. We definitely missed everyone this year.

HK After Taiwan Pics

Monday, December 24, 2007

Taiwan & Hong Kong

Well we're happy we've left China and we've already had great experiences in Hong Kong and Taiwan. We arrived via train in Hong Kong on December 16th and headed to Taiwan on December 18th. Our initial two days in Hong Kong were filled with site seeing, friends and shopping. We met up with the Kates from Australia that we had met on our Yangtze River Cruise and they, with the help of a friend, showed us around to the Women's market, Victoria Peak and the Temple Street Night Market. The street markets are full of energy and great prices. We had lots of fun scanning through t-shirts, shoes and other trinkets. We found a small tripod for our camera that should work perfectly and it was only $2.00 Cdn. From almost the top of Victoria Peak we viewed the nightly city light show. It's pretty awesome that all the buildings come together to light up the skyline and with the addition of all the Christmas lights, it's quite a sight. We think the show will be much better from the harbour so we'll try again from there.

Once we got our hands on an Octopus card, travelling around Hong Kong got a lot easier. Getting to the airport to head to Taiwan was almost too easy. Breakfast from 711, a short subway ride and the airport express train all purchased on our pre-loaded Octopus card, Dexit eat your heart out! We made sure there was enough money on the card for our return trip too. No need for cash here :)

The flight to Taiwan was short and sweet. As was our stay in Taiwan. It seems to us that Taiwan is Asia's little secret, mixing Japan's style with China's culture. Taipei was awesome, a large bustling city with wide streets and sidewalks, easy to get around and lots of similarities to home. We greatly enjoyed our stay but it still didn't beat camping out in Taroko National Park. After a night in Taipei, we left half of our stuff at the hostel, and took a train down Taiwan's east coast to visit the Taroko Gorge. Here we are, heading to one of the natural wonders of the world, and we find out that our camera will no longer turn on! We tried everything we could think of and it just wouldn't turn on so we were forced to buy a disposable camera. Disappointing and quite amusing/frustrating to actually have to decide what was worth taking a picture of. We walked for about an hour and a half from the train station to the park headquarters, ate some lunch, and took the 3:30 bus into the only campsite of the park. The bus ride through the gorge was absolutely breathtaking. Not only was it a windy road, but the cliffs on each side just rose incredibly out of the river through much of the journey. We picked the wooden tent platform with the best view of the nearby waterfall and set up camp. There was also a suspension bridge beside the waterfall which gave us a great view of the river. A perfect spot for a campsite.

While in the park we enjoyed the great trails they have to offer. We first walked the Tunnel of 9 Turns trail that was once the original road. The views were breathtaking and our pictures do it no justice. Looking down into the gorge white marble glistened in the sun making it look like snow and ice. Butterflies seemed to overcrowd the place and Jason's bright orange shirt attracted them, Jason even had one land on his finger. We walked back past our campsite to the Lushui-Holiu trail that climbed midway up a cliff and yielded great views of the gorge and our campsite below. We had fun using our head lamps to navigate a cave. Finally it was time to leave as light rain started to roll in. We had a quick lunch at a park cafe and then walked 2km to Tienhsiang to catch the bus to Hualien. We had planned to continue down the coast to camp the night, but the rain was heavy and the little town of Hualien was quite inviting.

We found a great hostel called Amigos and enjoyed the movie theatre in town. We watched I am Legend with Will Smith and then decided that we had enough time for a double feature, also catching National Treasure 2. Both decent movies. By the morning the rain had finally let up and the sun was peaking through the clouds. We caught the brightly coloured Hualien city bus to Jici beach, about an hour south. To our amazement Jici beach was pretty much closed up for the winter. It was beautiful 24 degree weather and the beach had already been closed for two months. It's crazy that a place like this is still seasonal. We were both wearing shorts and t-shirts sweating in the heat with our packs on, but locals were in long pants and jackets. We can only imagine how hot it gets in peak summer. Next to the beach was a short but steep trail up the bluffs of a small peninsula. We hiked up with our packs and enjoyed a rest and view at the top. The ocean was a beautiful blue and the less populated area was a treat from China. We ate our packed lunch and then waited about an hour for the next city bus to come by to continue down the cost to Shihtiping.

Shihtiping had a beautiful rocky coastline. We set up camp on a covered wooden platform and enjoyed watching the rocks turn orange just before the sun disappeared below the mountains behind us. There were many fishermen on the rocks that jutted out into the ocean and the surf created a soothing roar. Very picturesque and enjoyable. We watched the sun rise in the morning through the clouds and Jason enjoyed scrambling about the rocks while Nicole packed up camp. The highlight of the area was a rock outcropping that required scaling down its small cliff face with the help of a rope. Jason enjoyed it immensely.
We returned to Taipei via bus and train with a tight schedule of things that we wanted to accomplish. First priority was getting our laundry done as we had been wearing dirty clothes for about a week and a half now. It was getting a little gross... After, we walked along "Camera Street" and found a good deal on a similar camera to our own. The next day we visited the Taipei 101 building. Until very recently, it was the tallest building in the world, and it is the only building of its kind in all of Taipei. The views were pretty amazing since there are no other buildings that are even half its height in Taipei.

We spent the afternoon in a scenic, touristy town in the mountains south of Taipei called Wulai. The main town spanned a river and featured a pedestrian street with local stores and sausage vendors leading to Lovers Walk and a beautiful waterfall. There was also a small gauge mini-train to take you to and from the waterfall which we rode on the way back. All fun until it started to rain and we booted it back to the bus. Back in the city, we managed with difficulty to find a place to develop our film from the disposable cameras, ate some dinner, then perused the Shilin Night Market.

And now today, Christmas Eve, it's back to Hong Kong!

HK Before Taiwan Pics | Taipei Pics | Taroko Gorge & East Coast Pics

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Shanghai to Hong Kong

We should arrive in Hong Kong in 2 hours and it's been an interesting journey. Shanghai was a nice break from the rest of China. It's another high-tech bustling city with familiarities to home. The skyline of the Pudong area is shocking with nothing but skyscrapers piercing the clouds. We enjoyed our short stay, but nonetheless, we've been ready to leave China for some time now. It seems you either love it here, or your patience quickly runs out. Nicole can't seem to ignore the spitting and it's hard to escape the urban "small towns" of at least 2 million. The smoke filled cafes, trains and city streets make it difficult to find fresh air and we have joined locals coughing from the smoke and pollution.

We took a day trip from Shanghai to Hangzhou to tour West Lake, the second most scenic tourist attraction for the Chinese. The 'little' town was filled with up-scale tourist restaurants and cafes. We first took the tourist bus to North Peak and scaled the mountain via the gondola. The smog/fog made it impossible to look back down over the lake and the temple atop the mountain was all under construction. Not a good day to visit and a small waste of money. Back down, we took the less expensive city bus half way around the man-made lake and walked across the causeways back to the train station. We had a great but expensive lunch at a little restaurant, stuffing ourselves. We were happy to walk it off. The lake was well laid out and beautiful for man-made nature. It was slightly chilly that day and being off season the crowds were small and we enjoyed chatting without having to walk single file. We arrived back in Shanghai after dark.

It rained almost non-stop for our three days in Shanghai and we hadn't seen sunlight since arriving in China. We were both getting tired of it. We left in the late afternoon taking a sleeper train to Guilin, our longest train yet at 21 hours. We weren't counting down the time to Guilin though, instead, 3 days to Hong Kong! From Guilin we took a bus to Yangshuo and were so happy to find beautiful scenery and fellow backpackers looking to escape the cities. Our hostel in Yangshuo was great, $11 each for the night which included three meals. We ate a wonderful dinner with a dozen other travellers and chatted with a nice English couple well into the evening. We made plans for a trek the next day and for the first time found ourselves disappointed that we didn't have more time to discover the area. Early the next morning we met Susy and Tim and headed out for a 5 hour trek along the Li River lined with beautiful peaked hills. We weaved through farms, tiny villages and along the river, crossing it three times via local boat. All 4 of us were thrilled to be off the beaten track and amongst smiling locals not looking for our money.
That evening we said good-bye to everyone and again boarded a sleeper train from Guilin to Guangzhou, this is where things got really interesting. We arrived at the hostel in Guangzhou only to find out that Jason had left his money belt with passport, plane tickets, credit cards, travellers cheques and money under his pillow on the sleeper train!! ARGH!! We returned to the train station and asked the station police to help us out. They sat us down and the one English speaking officer collected our information. The train had carried on to its final destination of Shenzhen and the police were unable to contact the train directly. We had to wait for the train to arrive in Shenzhen before we could find out if the Shenzhen police could recover the money belt. We were alone in our cabin on the train, so our chances were pretty good. Sure enough, after 2 hours of waiting, we got the call that it had been recovered! Yay! The police arranged for the money belt to stay with the officer on that train and for him to bring it back to Guangzhou when the train made its return journey to Guilin. The train didn't come back through until 7:45pm so we had time to check in to our hostel and fret. We returned to the train station before 5pm so that we were there when the police shift changed. We waited until 7:30pm when a police officer took us to the train platform to meet the train. Woo Hoo! The money belt was in out sights but the security officer was reluctant to return it. It took a good half hour before they talked with us and it seemed they weren't going to return it at all. We were able to reproduce Jason's passport number which we had copied down in case of emergency and then they finally checked my signature and all was well. Quite a frustrating adventure. Not one that we plan to have happen again! It's funny, they made us count the Chinese money in the belt twice to ensure it was all there. We couldn't have cared less, we just wanted the passport back. Money is so important here.

We celebrated with ice cream and beer :).

After the ordeal, we changed our original plans and decided not to tour Guangzhou or stop in Shenzhen, missing out on two very tall buildings. Jason compromised with himself and decided that from now on, only buildings over 400 meters tall were worth visiting. This excludes Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Instead, we relaxed in our room for the evening, finishing season 2 of 24 and spent this morning finalizing hostels and plans for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Susy and Tim promised blue skies in Hong Kong but the sun was already out in Guangzhou and has continued to shine all the way to Hong Kong. We're looking forward to the beaches in Hong Kong and camping in Taiwan.

Only 9 days till Christmas - Season's Greetings!

Shanghai Pics
| Hangzhou Pics | Yangshuo Pics | Guangzhou Pics

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Yangtze River Cruise!

We have just arrived in Shanghai after a nice 4-day cruise on the Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world! The main attraction on the Yangtze is the Three Gorges area, which was quite beautiful. The cruise also acted as a nice segment of our journey from Chengdu to Shanghai.

From Chengdu, we took a 4-hour fast train to Chongqing where we were greeted by a China Highlights tour guide and driver. The guide gave us a nice explanation of the significance of Chongqing in today's China and they dropped us off at the bus station. Unfortunately, being December, the water was too low on the river at Chongqing Port, so a large bus drove us 2 hours to where the boat was docked in Fuling. We boarded at around 10pm and settled into our little cabin on the 4th deck for the night. It was a pretty nice boat, the staff were quite nice, and all of our meals were included.

The first day of the cruise included an excursion to the Abode of Ghosts, across the river from the town of Fengdu. It included numerous temples and statues dedicated to demons and devils, as well as many superstitious testing spots to prove if you were bound for paradise and to test if you were a good or bad person. It was quite amusing following our guide's instructions in passing each test. Passing over a bridge in 9 steps holding hands meant that our relationship would last, holding our breath up 30-odd steps meant we were bound for paradise, and being able to balance on a certain semi-spherical stone for 3 seconds while looking forward meant that we were good people. Men had to enter gateways with their left foot first, while women had to enter with their right foot first. There was one gateway where if we went straight through the middle of it, we would come back half human, half beast in the next life. A chairlift took us up the hill from the river. It was quite strange getting off a chairlift without a snowboard attached to our feet!

On each excursion, we were grouped with the 7 other individual English-speaking passengers on board. 2 were Australian girls, both named Katie. Tracy and Lisa were a couple from Portland. And the other 3 were Swiss, but they mostly kept to themselves. We were also grouped with the Katies and Tracy and Lisa for meals. The other English-speakers on board were in a large group who were all involved in coast guard in developing countries from around the world. There were representatives from many African, South American, and South-east Asian countries. We played crazy eights with the Australians and a few others from the coast guard group each night of the cruise while having a few drinks. We bought beers for cheap offshore in preparation. :)
Our second day is that which brought us past all three of the Three Gorges. The first one at 7:15am was likely the most impressive. Shier cliff faces on each side, rising to mountains barely visible in the clouds beyond. This section lasted for 20 minutes. The second gorge had large tree-covered hills rising out of the river on each side of us. The sun also made an attempt to break through the clouds, making it a little more beautiful. At the tail end of this gorge was the city of Badong where we began another excursion. We transfered to a ferry which took us up the Shennong Stream, a tributary to the Yangtze. This river was much narrower and included some hanging coffins lodged into cliffside crevices and a very large rectangular cave. It was a pretty impressive winding journey. After an hour or so, we disembarked the ferry and boarded little pea pod boats, which looked somewhat like a wide version of a dragonboat. Each boat held approximately 20 people, 3 people per seat row. There were 3 people paddling at the front, with one paddler and one sternsman at the back. They took us 30 minutes upstream then dragged us up through a stone bed area before turning around and using the current to whisk us back down through the stone bed before padding back for another 30 minutes. Apparently, in the summer heat, the men get naked when they drag you up the through the stone bed. No such luck being in December. :)

The ferry returned us to the cruise boat and then we passed through the western half of the third gorge shortly after sunset. We passed through the 5-stage Three Gorges Dam lift lock between 10pm and 1:30am. We only watched as we went through the first lock before playing some more crazy eights.

We were up early on our third day for the Three Gorges Dam excursion. We were first bused to a viewing platform on the boring side of the dam. Since the dam is still under construction, this was the only way to view the dam at the same level as the top of the dam. Then they took us to a viewing platform at the top of the hill which gave us views of the cool side of the dam as well as the 5-stage lift locks. It's pretty DAM large! Not height, but it is 2km long! Once completed in about a year's time, it will be the largest dam in the world, the water level upstream will have gone up 175m in most places, and it will displace about 1.5 million people! The power of communism... It will produce the energy equivalent to about 18 nuclear power plants. The largest engineering project in China since the Great Wall. Impressive.
Back on the boat, we enjoyed massages and Nicole tried a foot reflexology session. We also learned how to play Mah Jong! Much like rummy, except you use domino-like blocks with Chinese characters on it. Pretty fun. We bought a travel set so that we don't forget how to play. We then enjoyed a complimentary glass of champagne with the crew before dinner and then they hosted a night of entertainment for us. The coast guard group sang We Are The World for us too. Quite fun and we got to know enough people that it was actually sad to say goodbye.
We were up early the next morning to take a 4-hour bus ride to Wuhan. Again, the boat was meant to take us all the way, but the water level was too low. Fog on the highway extended our trip an hour as well because they actually don't allow you past the toll gate when the fog is too bad! We had another China Highlights guide and driver in Wuhan who taught us all we needed to know about Wuhan before dropping us off at the train station. We had 7 hours to wait until our train, but the train station wasn't anywhere convenient and we didn't want to venture into the city with our packs, so we passed the time in the train station. We had a soft sleeper on a super fast train which was very nice. We even had our cabin to ourselves! We also talked with a nice man in the next cabin who knew English well. Jason even talked to his son on his cell phone! Quite fun.

We arrived in Shanghai at 7am this morning and found our hostel with no problems. Shanghai is very modern and actually fairly nice! We think this will be our most "normal" experience while in China. Our hostel seems quite nice too. Looking forward to a nice few days here.

Yangtze River Cruise Pics

Monday, December 3, 2007

Xi'an and Chengdu

Xi'an and Chengdu have been awesome except for one large disappointment, but we'll start from the beginning. After our first day of settling in and catching up on the internet in Xi'an we spent a busy day on an excursion to see the famous Army of Terracotta Warriors. The guide first took us to an artisan workshop that today creates new warriors in the same old fashion way. It was interesting and reminded both of us of grade 8 art class. The one difference is that the real Terracotta Warriors are each different, not one face is alike, whereas here they use the molds a number of times.

When we arrived to see the real Army of Terracotta Warriors we didn't know what to expect, but at first sight they took our breath away. It's absolutely amazing what humans could accomplish 2,000 years ago. The history of how the Army was formed is well worth a listen and we're thankful we had a tour guide. Our brief interpretation of their history follows: Emperor Qin Shi Huang believed that when he died, he would need an army to protect him in the afterlife. So, in preparation, he had thousands of artisans create the Army of Terracotta Warriors. Qin Shi Huang inspected each of the 7,068 hand crafted and painted warriors himself and if they were not perfect he would assassinate the artisan. You can imagine the detail and beauty of each warrior. The Army was burried 1.5km east of his tomb, as this was the direction Qin Shi Huang was attacked from in recent battle. The tomb and surrounding area was to be top secret so no one could rob his grave or disturb his peace. To carry out his wish, after Qin Shi Huang died and was burried, the next Emperor had every man that helped to build the tomb killed and burried nearby. Also, every concubine of Qin Shi Huang that did not give birth to a child was murdered and also burried near the tomb. CRAZY!

What makes the Army even more spectacular is that it was only discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. Excavation and recreation of the warriors carries on in the night, on site, while tourists visit during the day. It takes one year to piece together one warrior, so recreation is not even half done!

We enjoyed lunch, visited Qin Shi Huang's tomb mound, and carried on to a hot spring temple, Huaqing Pool. Lots to see in one day. Back in the city we made the five minute walk to the train station to purchase our soft-sleeper ticket to Chengdu and ate beef noodles for dinner, yummy.

The next day, we took the local bus down to Xi'an's main attraction, the Big Goose Pagoda. We caught the tail end of a choreographed fountain show that must have started at noon, then we entered the pagoda area and climbed the 7 floors of stairs. A little too hazy for a good view, as usual. Then we took the bus again to the South Gate of Xi'an's city wall and walked up to the touristy Bell Tower area. Ate some lunch, climbed the Bell Tower, then carried on past the Drum Tower to the Muslim Quarter. We walked along narrow crowded streets of shops and meat merchants and continued along even narrower side streets to the Great Mosque. The Mosque grounds were actually quite beautiful. Many gateways and archways leading up to the worship hall, which is still used for prayer today and no tourists are allowed in. On our walk back through the narrow market streets, we even found merchants selling brand name clothing for extremely cheap. Billibong, Quicksilver, North Face, and others. Nicole almost couldn't resist buying a seemingly genuine Spider jacket for under $30. Insane. We're now keeping our eye out for similar markets. :)

Our next day is that which brought great disappointment. We got up in good time, excited to visit the sacred mountain of Hua Shan for the day. Jason had been looking forward to Hua Shan since well before the beginning of our world tour. We were looking forward to climbing along the narrow mountain ridges and getting our fill of adrenaline. We went to find our bus, quickly realizing everything was in Chinese and we were going to need some help, so we walked back to the hostel. After sufficient direction we headed back to the buses and boarded our bus. We sat there for 15min, 30min, 50min and so on. Finally, after just over an hour, we were pissed watching the time tick away. We needed to be back in time to catch our train to Chengdu at 8:00pm. Jason checked with the driver and discovered that there's no set time for the bus, it just goes when it goes (or when the bus is full and they've made as much money as they wanted). Soon we got off the bus in frustration, but they waved us back on and this time, Nicole made it very clear that if the bus didn't leave in 5 minutes we would leave. Well the bus didn't leave. We headed back to the hostel in hopes they could figure something out last minute, but no luck. Instead of enjoying the day atop a mountain, we sat in the hostel restaurant, angry and disappointed. Jason really took it hard (he's still moping) and I think we've officially decided we'll have to come back to China for a brief vacation. To try to raise our spirits we took a walk to a nearby park and then along the outside of the North wall. It was nice, but no mountain peak.

The 16 hour train ride to Chengdu was interesting. We were glad we had soft-sleeper tickets, however they were for beds in different rooms. It was slightly uncomfortable for Nicole in a room with three older chinese men, but everyone seemed nice and we slept well. We arrived around noon and fought crazy crowds on exit. We briefly looked for the ticket booth to purchase our next train seats, but when a marching band came towards us through the crowd we decided it best to head straight to the hostel. Even though we had just slept and relaxed on a train for 16 hours we were both exhausted and, once settled, had a nice afternoon nap. Soon, we were feeling better and we decided to investigate our hostel. Dan & Es were here! :) They were the couple that we hiked the Great Wall with in Beijing. They seemed to have gathered a small entourage and they were the life of the party. We stayed up into the wee hours of the night drinking and chatting. Good times.

We overslept the following morning and lost half the day. We still needed train tickets to Chongqing so we first made our way to the station to get them. Nicole was a little confused with our plans for the day, but we eventually understood each other and headed to Leshan to see the world's largest sitting Buddha. It took a good two hours by bus to get to Leshan and then we walked around trying to locate bus # 13. Finally success! We arrived at the site around 5:00pm and we knew we needed to catch a bus back to the main station by 5:40pm. We managed to climb up all the stairs to the top of the Buddha and then climb down to the main observation deck and make it all the way back in just the right amount of time. The Buddha is quite large, big enough to have a picnic on his foot and his ear is taller than Jason, the whole thing stands 73m! Quite impressive and worth all the rush.
Up early the next morning to catch the daily tour to the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Centre. It is the largest and most successful panda breeding facility in the world and home to over 40 pandas. Our tour guide lead us around to the most active spots. We have to admit that the Chinese in Chengdu have done a great job creating a natural habitat and caring for the endangered animals. We enjoyed watching the giant pandas munch on bamboo and the cubs wrestle with each other. There are no cages for the animals, instead deep pits and an electric fence hold them, so you're seeing them unobstructed. It's great! They also had several red pandas that resembled red raccoons with long bushy tails. It was a great, yet sad experience to visit such wonderful animals.
We spent the rest of the day touring Chengdu, visiting the great statue of Mao, having tea in the People's Park and blogging at the local Starbucks :(. We really wish there was somewhere better to get a strong free wireless signal but Starbucks seems to be the most reliable here. We tucked ourselves into bed and enjoyed Rush Hour 3 while being excited about our Yangtze River cruise that begins tomorrow night from Chongqing.

Xi'an Pics | Chengdu Pics