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We passed on breakfast, using the time instead to finish off packing and to do a quick last check of emails. With a long flight ahead of us we headed to the airport early with the aim of getting the best seats in the bargain basement One World Explorer fare class. Next stop was the GST office (Government Sales Tax of 7%) to get the bits we need to claim back the tax on our accommodation. We had expected a long stop there as we have four months worth of receipts to get through but they simply gave us a form and told us to post them all in and wait for the cheque to arrive.

Both of us phoned home and as always it was a welcome lift to our spirits. I know I have said this before but it still amazes me that we can be half way round the world and talk to family as if we were next door. The strange this is that by this time tomorrow we will be eight hours ahead of the UK instead of eight hours behind. That though prompted yet another round of Stef talking about crossing the date line and how we will lose a day.

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All aboard!

We boarded the plane to find that we were some of the few “western” people on board, I suppose Caucasian would be a more apt phrase. A high proportion of the passengers were Indian, there is a connecting flight to Delhi, something I had not expected to see. Our seats were OK, not right at the back but as usual there was not enough leg room for Stef so I knew I was in for fourteen hours of huffing and fidgeting.

The strange thing about this flight was that we were following daylight around the world. We left Canada at lunchtime but arrived in Hong Kong in the early evening. It simply felt like a very very long day. Not long after take off, dinner was served and the lights in the cabin were dimmed to try and help induce sleep. I dozed on and off for about four hours but was then wide awake for the rest of the flight. Even when we eventually caught up with night and it was dark outside I still could not get back to sleep.

I have to say that it was one of the strangest flights I have been on because the passengers were a real pain in the neck. The air hostesses were continually going backwards and forwards getting drinks and snacks for people. One Indian chap, with a purple turban and a huge regimental moustache, seemed to be pushing the call button about every half an hour, sooner if he did not get what he wanted. The chaps in front of us got a bit disgruntled when they were refused a fourth double whiskey. And I reckon that about a quarter of the people on board had asked for special diet meals.

Our route took us up the coast of Canada and Alaska and then down over Japan and into Hong Kong. We used the airport hotel reservations desk (not very friendly at all) to get a bed for the night. Even though I knew that accommodation here would be expensive the prices still came as a bit of a shock, especially as they get around a 50% discount on normal rates.

The Airport Express whisked us to Kowloon where a free shuttle bus took us to our hotel. The bus gave us our first views of Hong Kong. Row upon row upon row on massive apartment blocks and skyscrapers like nothing I have seen before. They made the office blocks in the City of London look small and far outnumbered them too. Even the traffic was full on with roads linking up to left and right and cars and busses whizzing about all over the shop. It was strange as well being back in a country that drives on the left hand side of the road and it took me a while before I stopped thinking the bus was going the wrong way round a roundabout!

We checked in to what is a pretty swanky but fairly anonymous business style hotel, the Marco Polo Gateway. Its one of three in the group that are all lined up on the same block by the harbour. We are in the cheap one so I dread to think how much the others cost. For our money (around £100 a night) we have a large room with two very comfortable queen beds so it is probably a reasonable going rate, just a lot more than our budget really allows.

Both knackered from a long day and from the stresses of leaving our little motor home behind us we simply tucked up in bed as soon as we checked in. Stef ordered a film, Kingdom of Heaven, and I think I saw about the first ten minutes before fatigue took its toll and I nodded off.

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Double double-decker tram

Our first real day in Hong Kong and the Asian continent. We had both slept well but I still felt very thirsty from the long flight. Having paid for breakfast we were both determined to make the most of it. The breakfast room seemed a little dated and out of place compared to the glitz and comfort of the rest of the hotel but they put on a fine spread. We passed on the continental and full blown fry up opting instead for a Chinese style breakfast.

As I was sat eating my noodles, rice, dumplings and dim sum I mused on how strange it seemed to be to be eating this for breakfast as we would typically only have that type of food for dinner. But I suppose it is only the same as us having bacon and eggs and all the trimmings, the same type of food we would eat for dinner. It was probably one of the tastiest breakfasts I have had in a long time.

We headed out to explore and wandered down to the Star Ferry and the local tourist information office. Although our hotel room is very comfy, we needed to find somewhere cheaper to stay. Lonely Planet claims that at this time of year many hotels will have lots of availability so you should be able to get really good deals. That is a total load of tosh. Everywhere is really busy and they had trouble finding hotels with availability, let alone ones that would give good discounts. In the end we settled for the Wang Fat Hostel, a LP recommended guesthouse/hostel. We can stay there for three nights for the same cost as one night at our current hotel so god only knows what it will be like!

Hong Kong has a pre-pay travel card system like the Oyster system in London. Called Octopus, you charge up a plastic card with credit and then swipe it a card reader every time you make a journey. It works on pretty much all public transport and is the best way to get around cheaply.  We went up to the nearest MTR (underground system) station, got our cards then headed back down to get the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong Island.

In the days before the MTR this must have been the only way to get across the harbour. Now it seems to have mainly tourists on board. The boats are from a bygone age and the wooden interiors gleam with years of use. They no doubt will soon get consigned to the scrap heap for being inefficient and unsafe, the same as the Routemaster hop on hop off buses in London.

A Hong Kong classic it was a great ride and very cheap. It’s a double decker ferry, rounded at both ends and painted green and white, the same as the harbour it comes into. We were on the top deck for first class passengers. At the time of writing we have now been on the ferry about six times and I have still not seen where you go if you want to go second class on the lower deck. Either end of the ferry has windows but the middle section is open to the elements. The top deck has what looks like plastic curtains that can be pulled across if needed.

Seeing the north shore of Hong Kong for the first time was a real sight. We had thought that the part of Kowloon the bus took us through yesterday was heavily built up but it was nothing compared to the size and number of buildings on the north shore of the island. It looks as if every inch of land is either a building or a road connecting one building to another. The density of the population here must be horrific and most apartments probably get little or no direct sunshine throughout the day.

We opted to get our bearings by following Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the central district. From the ferry this took us up to Statue Square and right to the heart of Hong Kong’s Christmas activities. I do not think that either of us had expected Christmas to have much prominence here but it is everywhere you look. The lifts at the hotel were playing Christmas carols and shops and buildings are all decked out with lights and decorations, most of which I have to say are pretty gaudy. Even the subway tunnel from the ferry to the square has been renamed Mistletoe Alley for the occasion and has lots of lights hanging down from the ceiling representing said bud.

The action in Statue Square does not get going until night time but there is a Santa’s grotto and other bits and pieces. Around the edge of the square are small Christmas trees made of a simple coil of lighted wire. There is a charity here that makes wishes come true for local children with illnesses. People buy a paper Christmas tree (like a gift label) and write onto it their Christmas wish and then hang them onto the coiled Christmas trees. It is a really great idea and lots of people have taken part already.

From here we walked past the Cenotaph and then up to Chater Garden where more Christmas festivities take place. Here they have made a short alleyway, again decorated with people’s Christmas wishes, that leads you through to a display of different nativity scenes from around the world. They were closed when we walked through so we will need to go back at night to see them.

We followed the route up Cotton Tree Drive and into the Hong Kong Park. This is a real haven of peace and calm in the middle of the madness of the city. We entered the park near the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware. From here you look down over beautiful gardens down to a small pond. Benches line the paths and people were simply sitting and relaxing and enjoying the afternoon sun. We joined the dreamers and sat for a while enjoying for the first time in many weeks being somewhere warm enough for just a t-shirt and no fleece or coat.

As we were by the tea museum we stopped off to have a look. It is based in the oldest colonial building in Hong Kong which is still in its original spot, the home of the commander of the British Forces. The museum outlined the different methods of making tea that have been used over the years by successive generations of Chinese tea. The oldest method they showed was one were the tea came in cakes. These were ground to a powder and mixed with water that had been salted, and then drunk. One variation was to whisk the tea until it was frothy on the top. A competition then evolved to see who could make the tea where the froth lasted the longest.

In another era tea was made with milk and cheese, I suppose a sort of tea flavoured hot chocolate. It is only relatively recently that tea has been made by steeping the leaves in hot water. There are detailed rituals that surround the process of making tea involving washing the pot and cups, rinsing the leaves before finally pouring the tea. The cups are placed on a round tray and the teapot is continually moved in a circle over the cups until it is empty. In this way each cup has tea of the same strength and taste.

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Happy Valley races

Upstairs they had the entries from a recent competition to make a pottery tea set for the current times. The winner was one where the teapots were caricatures of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden and the cups were halves of bullet and shell casings. The slogan that went with it was “Make tea not war”. The other designs were also fabulous but we were not allowed to take pictures to capture them.

There was a short video that again explained some of the ritual tea processes. It said how in today’s busy life the tea ceremonies were a good way to relax and unwind. I found myself getting tense watching it as each stage in the process was carried out painfully slowly. They also ran through the process of picking, drying and preparing the tea for market. I had not appreciated how much work was done before I could enjoy my daily cuppa.

As we watched the video a bride and groom walked by outside with their photographer in command of proceedings. At the other end of the park is the Central Registry Office and they must churn the weddings out at quite a pace as I think we saw six different weddings as we walked through the park. At the southern end was a small tranquil garden where people go to practice their tai chi. A small observation tower here gave great views down and over the city.

From here we walked through the parks aviary. They have constructed a hug wire dome over a section of the park and raised wooden walkways enable you to get close to the wildlife. A couple of very colourful birds (a type of parrot I think) put on a great display chasing each other in what looked like a mating ritual. Birds whooshed overhead as we watched and down below pelican swam gracefully round in a pool.

By this stage we were both feeling pretty sore footed and we decided to leave the rest of the walk. We headed back to our hotel stopping en route for a bowl of rice and beef as a late lunch. I had a brief power nap and felt much better for having done so. We then headed out again, this time to Happy Valley and to Hong Kong’s famous race track.

We took the MTR to Causeway Bay and from here got the tram up to the racetrack. The trams are quite comical. They are double decker and you have to go through a small turnstile at the back to get on. They lurch and swing along the streets but get you to where you want to go without a hitch, or at least they did for us.

Happy Valley race track is a phenomenal place. The tram passed along one side of it, the side without the grandstands, and you could see across the track from the top. It is a huge place and the people in the apartment blocks across the road who can see down onto the track must be quite popular on race nights. Betting on the horses is the only legal gambling in Hong Kong so it is pretty popular with the locals.

As we walked through the entrance gate though (charging the cost to our Oyster cards!) there were no Chinese people in sight. Artificial grass was laid out on the floor and there were beer stalls and western fast food outlets. All the people here were expats and travellers and I got the impression they were here for the beer and the people spotting opportunity more than the races.

The further down along the race track we got the more the atmosphere changed. Here were the locals and the local food outlets. Gone was the artificial turf, it was just bare concerete. Beyond here again was corporate hospitality land and the members enclosure. The stands reach up about five or six tiers high and again the differences at floor level were clearly seen in the stands too. We had a couple of bets but no luck on the gee gee’s. It was a Cathay Pacific International Jockey’s even and they had many jockeys from Europe, including Keiren Fallon who is partly responsible for our losses for coming a dismal third from last.

On the way back from the races we decided to check out the Wang Fat hostel just to make sure it was not totally horrific. It is based in an apartment block above “fashion street” which as its name suggests is full of high fashion labels. As we left the MTR station it was as if we had walked out into daylight. All the advertising hoardings, and there are loads of them, are lit up by big powerful halogen lamps and the result is bright light, stronger than the daylight that probably reaches down this far.

Inside the hostel it is very simple and basic but the room we saw was very clean, although small, and it had certainly seen better days. It will really be our first proper backpackers hostel since we started our trip. From here we made it back to the Marco Polo, both looking forward to our last night of luxury before we hit Asia proper.

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Tin Hau temple (god of seafarers!)

Stef has been struggling to fight off the last remnants of a cough and cold and a coughing fit this morning has resulted in him pulling the muscles in his back. Not great timing as he could hardly walk this morning and we were due to check out of our luxury pad and slum it on public transport to our cheap and cheerful hostel. The hotel is pretty busy but they were happy for us to stay an extra night … for double the rate we have paid for the last two nights! We thought “blow that” but took advantage of an extended check out so that Stef was at least mobile.

We made it across the harbour by cab and checked into the hostel. We have a small room off the lounge/computer room but it is away from the main street so it is quiet. There is just about enough room for us both to stand and pass each other, but still more space than we have had for the last four months in Morty.

With Stef mobile but only just we decided to go easy on the sight seeing and opted for a walk in nearby Victoria Park. As you walk into the park there is a huge concrete open space the size of a football pitch. This was the scene last weekend for a demonstration and from the picture I saw in the paper in Vancouver before we left, the whole place was full of people. The taxi driver who dropped us at the hostel said that it will probably be the scene for more demonstrations next week.

The World Trade Organisation will be in town for a conference and about seven thousand Chinese farmers are expected here to demonstrate against the USA. They subsidise their cotton farmers which means it is cheaper for China to import US cotton than it is to by it from their own farmers. Understandably the Chinese farmers are not happy. The taxi driver said that some of them are “crazy” and that about a quarter of the taxis will not work on the Island while the conference is on. They are clearly expecting trouble on the streets.

We walked through the park which has gardens, a jogger’s path and a tai chi space. It is also home to lots of sporting activity with an open air swimming pool, tennis courts (including a grandstanded centre court), squash courts and basketball courts. People were using all of these facilities and we sat for a while watching the world go by.

A few blocks away from the park is a Tin Hau Temple. It is set in small gardens with water falling softly through different square pools. The temple is small and from the look of the paintwork it has seen better days. A series of murals above the main entrance seemed to be telling a story but I could not work out what it was. Inside the smell of incense was very strong and the air had a haze of smoke. There were a couple of people who were here making offerings and it seemed to culminate in the lighting a bunch of joss sticks which were then separated out between pots both inside and outside the temple.

The interior was very rich in decoration with lots of reds and golds. There were no prayer wheels in sight but a rack at the back of the temple had lots of small pieces of paper (about a sixth of a sheet of A4) onto which lots of characters were printed. We tried to ask what these were for and I am still not really sure. I think that they are prayers or offerings and that people roll them up and then burn them like the incense sticks.

Leaving the temple we popped into a Wellcome shop, which turned out to be a local supermarket. As with South America and Canada, the same big brand names are splattered all over the shelves. While it is comforting and reassuring to see familiar items, and even funny to see Frosties packets in Chinese characters, it is yet another sign that cultural differentiation between countries is being eroded as super global brands dominate the world’s economy.

From here we headed down to the waterfront and attempted to find the Noon Day Gun, the one sung about in Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen song. We knew where we wanted to go, the only problem was that a big and very busy main road was in the way and the sign posts pointed us first one way and then back to where we had come from. Eventually the mystery was solved.

You walk up the car park between the World Trade Centre and the Excelsior hotel next door, doubling back on yourself almost immediately to go down steps to the lower floors of the WTC car park. Here a path takes you through a corridor under the road and along massive pipes taking sea water to and from the Excelsior. Finally you come out on the other side of the road – obvious eh! (Just seen that Lonely Planet tells you all of this – oh well, better read it next time!)

The gun is locked away in a small screened in patch of green but is covered in a tarpaulin when it is not in use. You can only get close to it for the half hour after the gun is fired at Noon. Local legend has it that the gun was fired by a Jardine’s employee as a salute to a boat that was leaving, standard practice by Jardines. The boat was crossing the path of a Royal Navy boat at the time and the officer on board did not know of the Jardine’s custom. As a penalty for firing the gun, and presumably breaking nautical protocols, Jardines were ordered to fire the gun each day at noon. An alternative line is that it was just a way to signal to all and sundry what the time was on a daily basis.

Looking back towards town from the gun we saw a common Hong Kong sight. Nestled in between two big new swanky glass covered tower blocks was an apartment block from an earlier age. Air conditioner units hung outside from every window and the block itself looked dirty and dingy. According to Lonely Planet one of the best value hostels in town is based here. I looked at it and thought it looked ready for the bull dozers ball, which no doubt is not far away as at least another twenty five floors could be build on top of what is currently there.

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Bright lights of Hong Kong

We attempted to walk around the point a little but again were thwarted by Hong Kong’s manic road network. Instead we doubled back and headed on to the Wan Chai part of town to have a refreshing beer. Again we ended up in expat territory with English and Irish pubs nestled in between very sleazy looking bars where it was obvious that flesh was on sale as well as alcohol. We opted for a little wooden bar with windows open onto the road and settled in for a two for the price of one Happy Hour special. It was quite a cosy place and a much needed resting point.

Refreshed we headed over the harbour and back to Kowloon, making our way to the waterfront Avenue of Stars. On the island side, about twenty of the big office blocks have been decorated with lights for the Christmas season. Really and truthfully, they are a bit tacky but it is quite something to see a skyscraper decorated to look like a Christmas card. At 8:00pm they have what they call the festival of lights, a ten minute light and sound show.

Again I would have to say that the show was tacky but whoever engineered it and put it together was a very clever chap. Some of the buildings had laser lights pointing up into the sky but all had lights that were switched on and off in time with the music. It was as if the buildings were an orchestra and that the conductor was hidden away out of sight coordinating and controlling events. It was definitely worth seeing but I do not think I would make a point of being somewhere where I could see it again.

Very foot sore by this stage we headed back towards our hostel, stopping off for a quick bite to eat along the way. Our room has seen better days. Where the wallpaper has peeled off the walls over the years other non-matching strips have been put up in its place. The cabinet under the sink in the bathroom is held together with Sellotape and if the cupboard ever did have doors they are long gone, which actually probably helps make the room look a bit bigger. The windows have quite a garish pattern painted onto them but it helps to maintain privacy from peoples in the blocks nearby. Despite all of this it is very clean and the bed has a firm mattress and we are probably both so tired we will sleep very well.

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View over Hong Kong and Kowloon from Victoria Peak

Stef woke still feeling stiff but up to the challenge of going out and about. We headed up the road and had breakfast at Starbucks, one of many outlets of the chain on Hong Kong. Just before we left a man came and sat next to us and started to talk to us in English. He did not really make sense, just kept going on about different colours and how his father was in the army, he was in the army and he likes green. As we walked out the staff came to check that he had not been hassling us, very similar to experiences we have had in India.

It was a clear day so we decided to head up to The Peak to get our views down and over Hong Kong. We made our way to the Peak Tram, which is really a funicular railway, and joined the queue of other tourists waiting to go up. It rises for about 400 metres but at a very steep angle. You can feel the pull of gravity on your back as it crawls up hill. The trip takes about eight minutes and halfway up they stop at a good vantage point for midway views.

At the top, the main Peak Tower where there are shops and observation platforms is being renovated but the Peak Galleria next door provides a similar service. It is yet another shopping mall but has a large terrace roof from where you can see down to Hong Kong and Kowloon below and up to the top of the peak. Outside there is a rectangular raised block of what looks like granite or marble with holes pierced into the top. Every now and again shoots of water burst up and slowly fall back down, a funny but relaxing to watch fountain.

Having been in amongst so many very tall skyscrapers we now found ourselves looking down at them. The apartment blocks are packed so closely together that everyone must be able to easily see into everyone else’s apartments. A couple have outdoor pools but the whole feeling is one of lots and lots of people crammed into a very small space. When we were in Vancouver we thought that the western side of town was pretty badly packed full of apartment blocks but if Hong Kong is representative of Chinese cities I can understand why so many have moved to Vancouver. The hemmed in parts of Vancouver are incredibly spacious compared to Hong Kong. Looking across at some of the walkways and bridges linking buildings together really creates the impression that you are in a huge anthill and that there are lines of ants scurrying away all over the place.

The views from here were pretty amazing and on a totally clear day you would be able to see for miles. Although at sea level we thought it was a clear day, from here Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are covered in a smog-like layer of haze. I reckon that the number of air conditioning units in use to keep the city cool is probably just adding to the heat problem in the first place. The manic traffic probably does not help either. The roads are clogged with cars, buses and lorries but surprisingly the traffic still seems to flow.

We decided to follow the Mt Austin Road up to the actual peak itself and the peak park. The road wound up past gated apartment blocks all with their own security guard. The wealthy residents of Hong Kong live here and there are Mercedes and BMW cars galore parked up beneath the apartments. Most of the blocks though look like they have seen better days or perhaps they just need a fresh lick of paint. On a clear day they must get fabulous views and in the summer it will be much cooler here than in the compact and dense city down below.

Around us the vegetation is definitely tropical and as we climbed up hill the temperature also seemed to rise. On the way up a local man started to chat to us. He is a “small potato” in the business world as he is only the assistant manager of a jewellery shop whereas his brother and brother in law are both something big in banking. We had already guessed that the main activity in Hong Kong was to make money, and then to spend it at the ceaseless trail of shops and shopping malls that cover the whole region and this man confirmed this to be so.

His children are a burden to him, although the British legacy in Hong Kong means that they get free education, and he wants to invest in property, oil and telecommunications on the mainland as he thinks these will be growth areas. I was left with the feeling that this was a dream he would never fulfil. He has also predicted that the level of bombing that the USA and its allies did in Iraq recently will set off a geological chain of events and that the pressure it created on the earths surface will next year result in big earth quakes down the Rockies and through the California. Time will tell if his prediction is correct.

At the top there is a large pagoda like shelter where you can stop, cool down, relax and enjoy the views. A smartly dressed man was crooning to himself accompanied by his guitar and a local detachment of Police had come up here for their lunchtime break. It was far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city and the noise of the building work by the Peak Tram stop, and was a great place to just sit quietly and contemplate for a while.

We followed the Governor’s Walk to get back down, a narrow concreted path that winds down and along the hillside. Large glass domed street lamps light the way at night and you can make these out from the lookout terraces back at the tram stop. It was a reasonably steep climb up to the park but definitely worth doing, in part because hardly anyone who makes it up to the Peak Terrace continues on up to the park.

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Another group of schoolgirls who want to interview us

From here we decided to go and have at a look at the south of the island. The only problem was that the bus Lonely Planet says will take us from The Peak to Aberdeen only runs on a Sunday. If you know where you want to go and how to get there travel around Hong Kong is pretty easy. But if you need to get a bus, tram, maxicab and do not know the route or the number there is never any information to help and rarely anyone around to ask except drivers of other buses.

We ended up heading back down to the Central area in a little maxicab bus. These only seat 16 passengers and no standing is allowed. It was a great little service, rattling down hill at a pace of knots, turning off here and there to go into housing estates before finally dropping us back down at the bottom. We hopped off a couple of stops early to have a quick look at the Central district and hey, what a surprise it is more shops and offices.

As we worked our way back down to the Star Ferry we were stopped by a couple of school children who were doing a survey on tourism. They asked us a range of questions in very good English, asked if they could take our photo and thanked us for our help. As we finished a lady, obviously their teacher smiled and also thanked us and it was only then that I noticed another teacher filming the whole event. A few hundred metres on, we were stopped again by children from the same school but with different questions. A few hundred metres further we completed our third survey.

At the bus station outside the Star Ferry there was a bus to Stanley but no obvious way to get to Aberdeen. With Stef’s back aching again we opted for a taxi. Great idea in principle but little did we realise that when he said “for boats to floating restaurants” he meant ones right by the floating restaurants and not the ones marked on our map in Lonely Planet. They are huge buildings but the food is not meant to be great, and neither of us were hungry so we headed on.

Another taxi took us down to Stanley and to its market. It is a large collection of stands selling stuff for, and only to tourists. You can get everything here from rugby shirts and luggage to silk clothes, paintings, jewellery and even some pretty stunning evening gowns. None of it though is on our shopping list so we just wandered through taking it in. By this time Stef was peckish so we stopped at a café so he could have a snack, which turned out to be quite a substantial snack but very tasty.

The number 40 minibus took us back to Causeway Bay and we retreated to our little haven. I was surprised to find that they had made the bed and given us clean towels, not what I had expected in a budget hostel. We both took time to catch up on diaries and then headed out later for something to eat. We went to a restaurant in the shopping centre opposite and got our first taste of what it will be like in China where few people will probably speak English.

I think we were the only non native people in there. There was a loud undercurrent buzz and hum and clink of chopsticks, the sounds of the very sociable activity the Chinese call eating. At the back were a couple of private rooms, doors closed and curtains drawn. When more food went through you could see inside and it looked as if business was still being conducted even though it was late on a Friday night.

There were four different menu cards on the table, one of which had pictures and one had English translations. We would have been totally lost without this as neither of us can make any sense yet out of Chinese characters. I suspect we will have to confine our future eating to places where they do have picture cards or, and this is quite common, where they have sample bowls outside of what you will get so you can simply point and nod.

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Incense sticks at Ngong Ping temple

We had planned to spend today on the Kowloon side, seeing some museums and going round a couple of markets but neither of us really felt like doing that. We changed tack and instead got a ferry across to the island of Lantau, the largest island in the region at twice the size of Hong Kong Island and the last inhabited island west of Hong Kong Island before you reach Macau.

The ferry was clean and fast and whizzed us across to the island in about half an hour. Hong Kong’s waterways are almost as busy as its roads. There is a never ending stream of ferries and boats plying across the water either taking people between the Island and Kowloon or bringing cargo in from the container ships moored up outside the harbour.

We landed at Mui Wo and from here got the number 2 bus along the south of the island to Ngong Ping. This island is much quieter than Hong Kong and the villages we passed along the way were more reminiscent of South America or small seaside villages you see in Europe. Here the pace of life seems much slower, although somebody seems to have forgotten to tell the bus driver that! The road followed the shoreline for much of the way passing long, narrow sandy beaches that must be packed to capacity in the summer.

Lantau is home to three prisons and we passed one on the right, perched on top of the hills and with views that holiday home estate agents would pay a fortune for. Soon we were crossing over the dam of the Shek Pik Reservoir which supplies drinking water for Lantau and for Hong Kong Island. The sloping dam wall has been grassed over and cows were grazing contentedly. Beneath the dam is what at first sight seems to be a big holiday complex. I thought it was a strange location because of what would happen if the dam ever failed. Closer inspection revealed this to be another of the island’s prisons.

The road started to climb and wind its way up towards Ngong Ping home to a Bhuddist temple and monastery and, since 1993, the world’s largest outdoor, seated statue of a Buddha. Here too building work is underway. A new cable car will link Ngong Ping to the Tung Chung MTR station next year. It looks like a massive construction project.

Dominating the Temple setting is the Buddha. It is seated on a raised mound with 260 steps to climb up to get to the Buddha. I have now decided that people here are very astute and canny business people. The Buddha has three different levels inside it. The first is open to all but if you want to see the other two you have to buy a meal ticket for a meal in the temple’s vegetarian restaurant. Intrigued we bought our ticket but with hindsight I think it was worth it for the meal rather than the Buddha museum.

It felt like a long climb to the top and I suppose it was designed in that way to make it a mini act of pilgrimage. All the way up people were stopping to pray to Buddha. The Buddha is a pretty big guy and the first floor inside relates the tale of how Buddha came about and talks about the project that resulted in this statue. It was a massive undertaking and took about seven years to bring to fruition. The Buddha is made of 200 pieces of cast bronze, each of which was hauled up hill before being assembled. The design of the Buddha is full of symbolic meanings.

Going up to the second floor you pass a large bronze bell which is rung one hundred and eight times a day as a reminder of the hundred and eight troubles of mankind. The second and third floors house a museum but our lack of ability to decipher Chinese characters meant we came out none the wiser. Around the Buddha are viewing platforms with fantastic views out over the island and its tropical vegetation. It is a very tranquil spot (or must be without the construction work).

We resisted the (not very great) temptation to buy tourist souvenirs, even though they have been blessed by the monks, and went to see the rest of the Temple site. Now it is full of tourists coming for a look than people coming to the temple for religious reasons. On the path leading up to the Temple people have left burning incense sticks, some of which must have been a centimetre in diameter.

The first temple building was a small pavilion leading through into a bigger courtyard. Whereas incense filled the air outside, the pungent scent of lilies and orchids filled the air inside. Ornate decoration in red and yellow surrounded a central “altar” on which were large golden statues.  Behind this temple was the old and original temple building, a much more modest affair which looks destined for the demolition ball to make way for a big new multi storey building.

We went to get our lunch in the Temple’s vegetarian restaurant (no meat or alcohol is allowed on the premises). It was a very generous affair with soup, spring rolls, sweet corn and tofu, mushrooms and pak choi, stir fried vegetables and rice all washed down with a big pot of tea. The flavours were intense and the textures all different making for a very tasty and enjoyable meal. Unfortunately for me it brought the inevitable onset of traveller’s tummy and I was much relieved to find a proper toilet rather than just a hole in the floor!

Leaving the temple behind we made our way back to the ferry and up to the Prince Edward MTR stop in the north of Kowloon. As in the centre of Kowloon this whole area is full of shops with glaring neon signs and bright lights to attract your attention. A short walk from here is Flower Market Road, aptly named as every shop for two blocks is a retail florist. Most were selling pretty much the same things, orchids, lilies, chrysanthemums and roses but the difference here to the UK is that these flowers actually had scent and it became quite overwhelming.

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At Yuen Po bird garden

At the end of the flower market is a small area called the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. Apparently Chinese men are very proud of their birds and this is a key area they come to to show them off. The area though is really a bird market. Anything you want from the birds themselves to beautifully made wooden/wicker cages to bird food (including live locusts) can be found here. It is an area with pungent smells of its own (ammonia from the bird’s droppings) and the cacophony of sound of hundreds of birds squawking at the same time was deafening. For me though I also found it a little sad and frustrating as some of the cages had so many birds in them they had little room to move around.

By this stage we had decided we had earned ourselves a little drink and as we are moving on to Macau tomorrow we decided to splash out and head for the bar at the top of the Peninsula hotel, one of Hong Kong’s finest. Still dressed in our travel gear (as its all we have) and sandals we fully expected to be turned away but we were actually more neat and tidy than many of the people who came in.

We had an (well, two in the end) aptly named Platinum Traveller cocktail (Absolut citron, Tio Pepe, Cointreau, Lime and soda) as we watched the world go by from the height of the eighteenth floor. Following a Lonely Planet recommendation Stef went to check out the Gents and came back with a very self satisfied look. The urinals, green marble bowls, are lined up by the window so that you can see the view while you take a pee! Intrigued I went to see if the Ladies could live up to standard but it failed miserably, although they had the heaviest marble doors I have ever come across.

We had planned to go and ride the Central Mid Levels escalator but both agreed we were by then too tired to do so. It is an intriguing idea. Most people live at the mid levels (part way up the hill) but work at sea level. The walk home uphill was pretty gutty so they have built a series of moving walkways and escalators to take away they pain. They come down in the morning rush hour but from a little after ten o’clock turn direction and take people back up hill. Neat!!

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Chinese sausages in Macau

Today we left the “luxury” of the Wang Fat hostel and headed over to Macau. The MTR took us down to the ferry terminal and we were just in time to make the eleven thirty crossing. The ferry is a Sea Cat and was very unsteady as we were getting on board, making it difficult to shed our packs before taking our seats.

We had been given the last two seats on the top deck so we had good views… or would have had it been clear weather. The foggy weather that surrounds Hong Kong followed us out and all the way to Macau which we reached in about an hour. Here we collected another entry stamp for our passports and as with Hong Kong I can stay here longer than Stef if I want to. We went in search of a hotel, and were strongly guided to the East Asia. It is in Lonely Planet so we decided it could not be totally horrific and booked in for two nights.

The directions for getting there were to take the number three bus and get off at the point the lady circled on the map. Not much help when you are not familiar with the town. Needless to say we realised we had gone past our stop, had much struggling to get our bags off a very packed bus and then started to get our bearings. We were actually not too far away but as sod’s law dictates we started to walk the wrong way.

Being by the docks neither of us felt we were in the nicest part of town and we quickly sussed we had gone wrong. Another hop on a bus took us back in the right direction and before long we found the hotel, tucked away up a side street. Our first impressions from the outside were not great but we have a large room on the eighth floor with great views out over Macau.

The last few days of pretty busy wandering around in Hong Kong, and walking about today for quite a while with our full packs on, had taken its toll and our tempers were fraying slightly. We had a breather for a while and then headed out to start to explore Macau, quickly having our first impression of a dirty, seedy place put into perspective.

We did not go far, having decided to have an easy day today and then sight see in full again tomorrow. First stop was to check information on buses up into China. The bus company is fortunately just down the road from the hotel and with a little gesticulating we managed to find out when the buses go and how much it costs.

From here we wandered down the Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro and to the main square, Largo do Senado. Back in bus travel mode we checked the information we had just been given at the Tourist Information office and I was glad we had. We have to get off one bus at the border, go through immigration and then walk through a shopping centre to get a different bus to take us to our destination. We are really now getting into territory where English will not be spoken and communication is going to be a big challenge.

We stopped for a drink and a bite of lunch and then ambled about for a little while in search of a supermarket. It is great going into them in different countries and here again familiar brand names were to be seen. We found everything we needed (washing powder, water and a notebook – not the most interesting shop I have ever done!) and started to make our way back to our hotel.

There is a fascinating array of shops here and only a few global chains in evidence. Starbucks has just opened up a branch (there are loads in Hong Kong) and we passed two McDonalds which were in sight of each other. Mostly it is the same mad mix of clothes, jewellery, electrical goods and pharmacies that we saw in Hong Kong. Roadside food stalls sell sheets of beef and pork that have been marinated in honey and then barbecued. It is snack food and we got a free taster at one of them – delicious, but we are dubious about how long it has probably been sitting there between being cooked and being eaten.

One shop had a fantastic array of sausages hanging from the ceiling and all sorts of different fowl hanging on racks around the shop. They looked like they had been cut in half, de-boned and flattened and then either boiled, smoked or barbecued. Stef got some great photos, moving away just as the owner started to get shirty with him.

We chilled out for a while in our room and then headed out to find somewhere to eat. As an ex Portuguese colony we were expecting quite a diverse culinary mix, although the bacalao (salt cod) fishcakes we had when we stopped for a drink were a bit disappointing. We gave another Portuguese place a try, this time a tiny little “greasy spoon” style café on the Travessa da Sao Domingos.

It was run by a big chubby Portuguese chap and what looked like a Macanese (mix of Macau and Portuguese) relative. Filipino girls seemed to be doing the work in the kitchen. A father and son, who we again thought were part of the family, were also in for a meal. We had mixed views on the food – Stef = good, Me = not so good – but it was relatively cheap and a quick in and out.

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Tiled mural in Macau

Initial impressions of Macau? At ground level in the main central area you could be in a Mediterranean city. A little further away and you are definitely in China. Our room is on the eighth floor and from here you can clearly see that a few million gallons of whitewash would go a long way and would vastly improve the look and feel of the city. It simply looks grubby. Stef has gone for a haircut and I am sitting in in a square by the cathedral waiting for him. A Portuguese tiled floor and fountain sit amidst the risk of new, restored and dilapidated buildings. The pace of life here so far seems to be slower than that in Hong Kong and there does not seem to be the "money, money, money" edge. English will be less and less useful and we are both wary about the next few weeks in particular as most things will be written in Chinese characters and not the pinyin roman alphabet conversion. At least when we get to Vietnam and Laos we should be able to easily read everything even if we do not understand it!

Anyhow, back to our travels. We decided today to follow the walking tour of Macau set out in Lonely Planet. Rather than walking from our hotel along the main Avenida de Alemeida Ribeiro to Largo Senado, the main square, we took the back streets. They're like little rabbit warrens, narrow streets with buildings four or more storeys high either side. Wrought iron balconies jut out from the windows, except at second glance they are not balconies, they just seem to be cage like coverings, allowing air in, providing somewhere to hang clothes to dry but keeping others out.

The street we followed, Rua da Madeira, was full of little shops plying their wares. At one, tiles for Mah Jongg were made and displayed in the windows. Others were selling fruit and vegetables - pak choi style cabbage, tomatoes, huge carrots, onions - others fresh meat, and when I say fresh I mean fresh. They had cages full of live chickens. We were not around when someone bought one so I am not sure if people take them away live or whether they are killed before they leave the shop. I suspect the former. A shrine filled a small space in a corner of the street. The streets are lined either side with little scooters which have obviously taken the place of the bicycle. The odd car squeezes through but the roads are really too narrow for them.

The Largo Senado could be in any Mediterranean village. The floor is tiled in a typically Portuguese wave pattern and colonnaded three storey buildings line each side. Before the Portuguese handed the colony back to China in 1999 they spent over £40million on refurbishing Macau and there are now a few clean, characterful areas amidst the rest of the seedy, grubby looking mess that is Macau. The Largo is just one of the areas to benefit from this cash and the Chinese seem to be maintaining it (although looking out from inside the colonnades the paintwork is starting to peel here and there). As with Hong Kong, the process is underway for getting ready for Christmas. Garlands have been hung across the square and the tree and lights are going up over the site of the fountain, which accounts for the funny shape of the tree. Here though Christmas is not yet splashed across every shop window as it is in Hong Kong.

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Keeping the old bits looking like new

We followed the Lonely Planet walking tour for most of the morning, firstly going up the Travessa da Sao Domingos, past the place we ate at last night and up to another square in front of the cathedral. Even just a short walk from the Largo, which was already busy with shoppers, t was a quiet and peaceful place. Backing onto the wall of the raised up square were beautiful tile scenes of old Macau and the boats that used to ply their trade here. The tour then takes you back down and through some of the man shopping streets. Global chains are on their way - Nine West, Clarks, Esprit) and there was clear evidence of a lack of acceptance of international copyright laws. The "Nice" shop, with a slightly stumpy tick as its logo, is a clear rip off of Nike.

We followed the road round to the Consulate General of Portugal, a large old colonial building well maintained in pristine gardens, all locked away behind a high fence, before heading to the Monte Fort, To get here it was a steep climb up the Calcada do Monte, a road where the pavement was steps all the way. A short cobbled hill off to the left leads up to the fort's entrance. Now all that remains are the outer walls. Originally built by the Jesuits as part of their overall church complex, it was designed so that they could survive a two year siege. Whilst not as large as the forts we saw on Canada's East coat, for the size of Macau I thought it was pretty big. Canons still line the fort on the side of the main entrance, some curiously just pointing at each other. A museum has now been set up n the fort site but it was shut today.

The fort provides great views across Macau. To the East there is much new development with big hotels and entertainment complexes going up. Most of the city though retains its dingy and dirty appearance looking like it either needs a good paint job or the for the demolition man to pay a visit. We found our hotel, one of the few high rise blocks to the west of Macau and even this looks as if it has seen better days. The fort introduced us, with full sound effects, to a local custom - spitting. Not just a quick spit of excess saliva but a real stomach churning clearing of the throat. Since the SARS outbreaks this is increasingly seen as a public health hazard and in Hong Kong fines can be levied for spitting in public. There have been a few "no spitting" signs here in Macau but as yet no evidence of fines if you do.

We made our way down to the ruins of the College of the Mother of God and the the Church of St Paul. Destroyed by fire, all that remains are the grand steps leading up to the facade of the church. It still puzzles me how the stone walls of a building burn. They have preserved the ruins and attempted to outline the former structure of the church. Unlike ruins elsewhere, here I had no sense that this was a former place of religious worship, despite many signs reinforcing this message and asking people to be respectful. There were simply too many groups of Japanese and Chinese tourists chattering away and having the inevitable many pictures taken of the same scene.

The area around the church was again very Portuguese in style, it was simply the contents of the shops and the look of the people doing the selling that told a different story. Here we passed an old man in traditional Chinese dress. He would have made a great photo but we asked before we snapped and he declined. We have seen some strange blends of old and new here and in Hong Kong. Road signs that were definitely British but with directions and instructions written in Chinese characters. Construction workers in hard hats who  have cut out the crown of their wide brimmed straw hats and pulled the brim down over their hard hat to give them shade. This old chap was one of a small minority retaining old customs.

In the afternoon we headed down to Macau's islands, Taipa and Coloane. Waiting for the bus on Avenida da Aleira Ribeiro there was another Lonely Planet laden couple looking a bit lost. It was pretty obvious from the page they were at that they were headed in the same way and we got chatting. They were an Australian couple who seemed to have done a fair amount of travelling over the years. The bus came, a little minivan style thing and off we shot through town and over the Macau-Taipa bridge, one of several that now links the mainland with the island. They are pretty long and impressive bridges too.

We drove through Taipa and on to Coloane, not realising until we arrived at the Hac Sa beach that we had gone straight through Coloane villgae. We stayed on the bus to head back and finally got off at the village, only to find that where we really wanted to go was back at the beach. Arriving at the beach for the second time we made our way to Fernando's a Portuguese restaurant with a good reputation. A large extension and open air bar have been added to what was once a small seaside taverna. They were very geared up for western tourists here. The menu was in Portuguese and Cantonese but they also had a small picture book with photos of each of the dishes and an explanation in English. our meal was good but certainly nothing to rave about.

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Ness with two giggling Chinese ladies

We went for a stroll along he beach, called Hac Sa because of its black sand. here too were busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists. Most were smartly dressed, as if it was an afternoon trip away from the office as a reward for hitting sales targets. We were the only westerners and Stef, for the most of the time, was the only person paddling in the sea. It was funny to see them all crouching down at the water's edge to have their photos taken, one eye on the camera the other on the waves lapping at their feet. A woman came up to me with camera in hand indicating to take a photo. I though she was asking me to take the photo, but no, she and her friend wanted their photo taken with me.

From here we got the bus up to Taipa village. Its hard to get your bearings and to know where to get off when the place is unfamiliar. It was not helped because here they have bus stops on roundabouts. You think the bus will go left but it keeps going round to the right, stops to pick people up  and then carries on the way you expected it to. Finally seeing a sight we recognised from our map we hopped off the bus, as it turned out a stop or two too early. The benefit though was that we stumbled upon a superb little garden that was not in Lonely Planet or marked on our map from Tourist Information. It was funded by the outgoing Governor of Portugal and completed about a year before the handover back to China. There were small courtyards where people could practice their Tai Chi but the main feature was a large pond with fish, a pagoda looking over it and a bridge crossing the pond. As we learned in Canada, the bridge had turns in it to prevent evil spirits, who can only travel in straight lines, from crossing the water.

Taipa village is now a mass of high rise tower blocks but the original town has been preserved. Five Portuguese style buildings lining the waterfront have been turned into a museum (closed today). They, and the walls of the surrounding gardens have been painted a slightly garish peppermint green colour. The gardens here were really peaceful to wander through. A team of people were busily working n a new landscaped section, planting row upon row of highly scented lilies. The old Portuguese sections of Macau have all been awash with colour, ether the paint on the houses or the blooms in the ground. The stairs leading downhill past the church again carried the wave effect that is apparently typically Portuguese. Here though it was not tiled patterns in the floor but the steps themselves, some retreating waves, others advancing.

We followed the road along to the old market, stopping on the way to look at some local temples. There are no organised religious services, other than funerals, people simply stop by as and when they please. The temples always have an attendant there ready to sell incense. We took some photos and left a donation before moving on, noticing along the way small holders for incense sticks just wedged between buildings, something we have seen often in Macau.

A little further on was a small bakery and the old baker stopped us and gave us a sample of his wares. There are tow main types of biscuits sold ere. One is like a crepe, folded in half and then rolled around a metal rod and cooled to forma tube. Another is very small rosette shaped biscuits that are like a very dry, crumbly almond shortbread. A small bite zaps all the moisture from your mouth. The latter are made in copious volume so they must be very popular. Watching the process, the seem to steam the biscuit mix in big bamboo containers before moulding it into shape. In Macau we must have passed fifty shops all selling these biscuits, not bad for such a small place.

At the old market only the structure remains, an open sided building with a tiled rood. It must have been a bustling and busy place in its heyday. A new market has been built a short way away, a soulless concrete block which did have a much needed western loo! It was early evening by this time and it was difficult to get a feel for the place, some shops were opening up, others were closing down for the night. We ambled down to the Pak Tai Temple, easily spotted or rather sensed by the strong smell of incense, prevalent even though the doors seemed to be closed and locked. On the corner of the square was a very inviting looking bar so we popped in for a beer or two. It could have been anywhere and most if its customers seemed to be expat Brits and tourists. Te sight of fifty year old British business men out drinking in false conviviality made us both glad we have broken out of the loop for a while.

The number 33 bus dutifully took us back to Central Macau, now lit up for the night. Along the way the builders are out in force. A big new complex is going up in the north of Taipa bringing "the charm of Venice and the casino's of Las Vegas". Macau looks set to change greatly in the next few years.

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Morning exercise in Guangzhou

The last few days have been pretty tiring with lots of walking about  and adjusting to a new style and pace of life but today we move on to China proper where the fun will really start to begin. We did a quick hop to the Post Office before we left to send another parcel home. It was quite a fun experience. You join one queue with all the stuff you want to send and they tell you how much it will be. They then send you somewhere else where they get the best size and type of packaging for you and you then go back to the first place, get the parcel sealed, fill in all the paperwork and settle up. Its quite a long winded process but its much cheaper to post stuff from here than it is from Canada.

From our hotel it was a short walk to the Kwee Kwam Motor Road company, the bus company that will get us to Guangzhou. We now have so much more sympathy for foreigners in the UK and how hard they must find it to get about. It was the same lady behind the desk who was here the other day when we came to enquire abut the buses and she was equally as functional. We bought our tickets and she gave us a small map to tell us where to o at the border,. We had timed it well because the bus to the border on this side left ten minutes later. The driver was a friendly chap and showed us where to shove our bags. He then headed off up the road we had walked up when we first arrived, through a very seedy part of town full of car and bike repair shops. From the look of the spare parts on their shelves I would be amazed if they ever got anything to work.

We stopped a couple of times and more people got on with bags and cases. The tower blocks started to reduce and we were soon in an area with smart looking new apartment blocks. A little further on and round the corner we were at the border, There was a constant stream of people all with little trolleys/collapsible wheels pulling boxed of stuff behind them, The all seemed to be in  nig hurry as if they were catching the last bus out of a burning city.

With our packs hoisted once again we started through the formalities. Leaving Macau was simple enough. We then had to go round a corner and down a corridor where we had to fill in a health declaration from. This was to say we had had no contact with poultry markets in the last seven days or with people with coughs, sniffles, diarrhoea, aids et etc etc. The impact of SARS has well and truly hit and is still being felt. From here it was into a massive hall to go through Chinese immigration, itself a painless process (except that we had not picked p the entry form we needed to fill and we went into the wrong lane so got politely chided by the officials!). As we stood and watched the goings on while we waited to get through it was as if we were watching a film that had been speeded up. There was a constant stream of people coming through all herding through the railed off lines to get through the control like ants. The shift for the immigration staff changed, a very military process. The new shift all lined up down one side of the hall and then marched in file around and behind the gates to take over from their colleagues. This border crossing is a massive facility which presumably in forty five years time will be surplus to requirements when Macau's Special Administrative Region status ceases.

Having cleared immigration we now had to find the Kwee Kwan bus station on the Chinese side. The little map the lady at the Macau office gave us helped but really all we needed to do was to follow the flow of people down the escalators, left a bit and down again and their office was on the right. Here for the first time we were faced with what is to come. A big departures board was above the ticket office with a few numbers for the times that buses departed but every thing else was in Chinese characters and there was no bus set to leave at the time shown on our tickets. Perplexed we tried to ask the ladies behind the counter. They changed us on to an earlier bus but both they and we were relieved when one of their colleagues turned up who spoke some English. She had a superb accent, very Queen's English in some parts, very Chinese in others, and she saw us safely to our bus. It turned out that she was the attendant on the bus and was with us all the way to Guangzhou.

The bus headed out of Zhuhai, the border town on the Chinese side, stopping to pick up more passengers. The road ran along the shore of the Pearl River and it was lined with formal gardens laid out with colourful flower beds and borders. Unlike parks in Hong Kong couples here were seen arm in arm, or having a smooch and a cuddle. A little out of town we passed the local fishing fleet, a mass of junks that looked like they had seen better days. We were both surprised by the journey. The bus was a modern coach, better by far than the ones we had been on in South America, even their deluxe ones. The TV actually worked and we had a Disney film instead of Steven Siegal blowing up some corner of the world. The roads were in really good condition so we had a fast and trouble free ride.

For a while we were driving through banana plantations (memories of Ecuador) and farm land but for most of the time it was a journey through heavily populated high rise blocks. These really are mega cities with millions of people living in close contact. The strange this is that it all looks relatively new. Outside Zhuhai there was a development of very smart looking two storey houses and we passed another similar development further on. Apart from these through everything else is tower block after tower block. Its easy to understand how something like SARS would spread quickly in such a dense concentration of people.

Not only were the roads in good condition (they all looked new and we passed many toll booths along the way) but they were long and straight stretching away for miles into the distance, just like those in the middle provinces of Canada. They were busy but not crowded and a lot of the traffic was buses and coaches, many from the Kee Kwam company. If all buses are as good as this one we should have reasonable journeys across country. The buses seem to be allied to the better hotels and use the hotels as their  pick up and drop off points. When we arrived in Guangzhou, we drove firstly on the expressway, a road raised about four storeys off the ground, and then along the river. The bus stopped in front of the Landmark Hotel, not much of a landmark for us as it is not listed in Lonely Planet!

On the opposite side of the road was a small park full of men playing a game using Mah Jongg style tiles. A pattern was marked our on a board and there seemed to be a complex process of moving pieces around. Others were doing their daily exercises using pieces of equipment left in the park for the purpose. As much as we watched the locals, they gazed in awe at us standing there with our backpacks on. They have a shy curiosity and backpacks are obviously a much less common sight than the uncommon sight of Westerners.

Our hotel was a little way away on Shamian Island. Too far to walk we flagged down a taxi and showed the driver on the map and in Chinese characters, where we wanted to go. This was met by a big shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head and off he went. The next taxi did the same thing, and the next. We knew we were probably not pronouncing the destination correctly but that that the map would work. Flummoxed we headed into the Landmark Hotel and asked for help at their transport desk. The chap there spoke some English and said he would sort us out. There was a queue of taxis at the hotel and he bundled us into the next available one. The driver did not look pleased and had a suspicious scowl on his face all the way.

Although this city is bigger in size, height and sprawl that Hong Kong it somehow seems much less chaotic. The streets are busy with traffic but not crammed so full that they feel they are bursting. people are going about their business but there does not seem to be the money, money, money rush. This view may well change tomorrow when we head further into the centre.

We finally made it to our chosen hotel, the Shamian Hotel, and booked in for a couple of nights. A board behind reception showed the room rate and the preferential (discounted) rate which seems to be available to anyone who asks. Registration slips were filled in and we were given cards with our room number. The keys are held by an attendant who oversees the floor and watches the comings and goings of the guests. No doubt in the not too distant past they reported back any suspicions or unlawful activity. We have a large, clean comfortable room with a little lounge area all for around £25 a night. From our window we can just see the Pearl River.

Hungry, we went over the road to the Rose Garden Club restaurant for a bite of lunch and a couple of beers. We could see people setting up stalls by the river and as we left to go for a wander it turned out to be the restaurant. They have so many tables and staff out here that they must be expecting to get very busy. What surprised me though was that the waitresses were al dressed up in Santa costumes. I had not expected to see Christmas in China at all.

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Playing games

Walking around we began to see the first signs of this area's popular business activity - child adoption. By law, if you want to adopt a child here you have to come and live here for a month. A few of the shops offered baby strollers (not pushchairs so you can tell where the adoptees come from) on free loans and we saw many Western, mainly US, couples walking around with Chinese babies. From their age they probably fall outside of the suitable criteria for adopting in their home town so they come here instead. One conversation we overhear was "this one cost $50,000", pointing to a small child in a push chair. The shops are also geared up with lots of baby and toddler clothes and suitcases to hold all that extra stuff. We pictured the conversations that could take place when these couples go home and back to work. Work colleague "hey, did you have a good holiday in China? Buy any nice souvenirs out there?". Parent who has just adopted replies "Yeh, great holiday, bought a baby for the bargain price of ...". I am sure that the couples involved will give a great and loving home to a child who would otherwise grow up in an orphanage but it just seemed strange to us to see a trade in babies. You could sense people looking at us thinking "they are here to adopt too".

Shamian Island is a small piece of land, much of it reclaimed, that looks like it has a fascinating history. We ambled along the Pearl River and then up and through the island making our way back to the hotel. Most of the buildings have plaques on the front explaining that they are garricked buildings (which we later learned means protected) and telling who they were built for and when. It is a real snapshot of colonial powers at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. A fair chunk of the buildings were for British companies and others were originally embassies. The buildings here created a strong and prosperous impression but they look a little out of place in China. Most seem in pretty good condition and some have been converted into apartments. Of those in disrepair there are signs that renovation work is underway. One private residence, now propped up by stout bamboo scaffolding, looked like it must have been spectacular in its day.

We decamped back to the room for a while before heading out for dinner. We toured the available options before ending up in a place two doors down from the hotel which had a big sign declaring that it was Guangzhou's restaurant of the year in 2003 and 2004. It looked pretty empty as we walked in but they were still happy to serve us. There was a very brightly lit main restaurant with private dining rooms all around it. Guffaws of laughter followed by heated conversation kept coming from one of the private rooms each time its doors were opened.

The English speaking waitress was duly despatched to help us order. She told us what the most popular dishes were for westerners - sweet and sour chicken, beef in black bean sauce - so we opted instead for fried goose in sauce, shrimps in sauce, mixed vegetables and steamed rice. The dishes we ordered were written on a piece of carbonated paper and a copy was left on our table. As dishes were ready they were brought out from the kitchen, passed to the waitress who put it on the table. The kitchen person then stamped the order on the table to say "dish delivered". It was simple food but very tasty and we washed it down with a bottle of beer, all for about £10.

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They were all called Fi Shing apparently

We spent most of the morning planning out what we think we will see and do in China. With communication set to be a problem we want to be sure that connections will work and that we can get across to Laos where we want to. Our plan broadly follows a Lonely Planet itinerary and will see us back on long bus journeys and potentially a twenty two hour train ride. As we planned Stef popped out to a local coffee shop for his morning cappucino and came back incredulous at the way people were treating the children they were adopting. They were simply shoved into a corner in a pushchair or were carried around as if they were a bag of shopping. They were not mis-treated as such but there were few signs of affection and interest in them from many of the adopting couples he saw out and about.

Most of the afternoon we spent in Yuexiu Park. Our biggest challenge was getting there. Fortunately both our hotel and the park were close to stops on the metro so in theory it should have been an easy trip but finding the metro station by the hotel proved to be a bit tricky. We knew roughly where it was but had no idea what the logo or Chinese characters for the metro were. As we were wandering around trying to find our way we saw another backpacker looking equally confused but going in a different direction. We waved copies of Lonely Planet at each other and smiled. There is almost an unofficial camaraderie that springs up when you see another western face. Even though you do not know who the person is, it is just a little something that takes you back closer to your comfort zone, although strangely I do not think either of us are feeling way out of our comfort zone at the moment.

We finally found the tube station and after going down about six flights of stairs we got to the ticket hall. Not expecting machines or signs in English we went to the ticket office and map in hand pointed at where we wanted to go. The lady told us how much it was and have us loads of change. From reading Lonely Planet I knew that a plastic token should be involved somewhere in the process but none had appeared. As we headed for the gates she called after us and pointed to the ticket machines. She had simply given us the change we needed to use the machine. There was an option for instructions in English so we pushed the right buttons, paid our money and out plopped two plastic tokens.

That was probably the biggest hurdle to using the metro. All the platforms and stations were signposted in English and the announcements on the platforms and the trains were also in English so changing lines was also easy. The trains are fast, modern and new and like in Hong Kong eating and drinking is now allowed so they are also clean. The roofs of the carriages are a little on the low side and we both hit our heads on the poles people hang onto in rush hour. The best bit though was the seats. They are not moulded into individual seat shapes but are just one long bench. As they are metal you slip and slide up and down them as the train speeds up and slows down.

We got off at the Yuexiu Gongyan stop and walked up into the Yuexiu Park. It costs Y5 to get in, about 40p, but this is well and truly money well spent. For an extra Y2 you can buy a map of the park, also a worthwhile investment. The park itself is a huge ninety three hectares and it was popular. With so many people living in huge high rise tower blocks they must really serve the purpose of a communal garden. Quite a few of Guangzhou's attractions are located within the park and this also brings the tour groups with all their attendant picture taking. In little quiet corners the older generation were practicing their Tai Chi. From what we have seen so far it does seem to be a dying tradition as we have seen very few young or middle aged people doing Tai Chi, or perhaps they just do it in the privacy of their own home.

The park was spotlessly clean, apart from the odd patches of spit, and the gardens and lawns were all beautifully manicured. One of the things I like about the parks here is that all the trees have name tags so you can tell what they are. They also have signposts telling you which way to go and these were also in English. I think this is lulling me into a false sense of ease that travelling around China will not be as hard as I had expected. In large cities I suspect that will be the case and it is just a matter of getting your bearings like in any other city. In the smaller towns and villages though I think that all the years of playing charades with family and friends will become invaluable preparation.

In one of the park's lakes there were little pedalo style boats for hire. One boat was cruising around with what looked like a park attendant in hot pursuit behind it. At another lake a group of men were fishing and there was a small fish farm further round the lake to keep the stocks up. Paths criss-crossed through the park and we followed them up and down in search of the Five Goat statue. Legend has it that Guangzhou suffered for many years from poor crops and a lack of food and clothes. Five goats, carrying celestial beings, came down from the sky bringing with them gifts that would ensure that Guangzhou would no longer suffer from famine. The statue is huge and impressive but also pretty ugly. It has been made in different sections and assembled at the top of the hill where it now stands. It is a big draw though and a large square around it provides ample space for the snapping pictures and buying tourist tat from the conveniently placed gift shop.

Further into the park is the monument to Dr Sun Yat Sen, who set up the first Provisional Republican Government in 1911, officially bringing to an end dynastic rule. A long flight of stairs, lined with lanterns hanging from the trees, leads up to the monument which is shaped like a large square piece of Toblerone. Inside steps led all the way to the apex but you can only go as far as the second floor. There a door leads outside and gives you a close up view of Sun Yat Sen's last will and testament which is inscribed in gold characters onto the outside of the monument, facing down the stairs. We both stood there wishing we could decipher them.

Our path them took us past a big sports stadium, eye catching as each section of seats has been painted a different colour, and on to the Zhenhai Tower, home to the Guangzhou City Museum. The tower dates back to the late fourteenth century and is the only part of the old city wall still standing. earlier we had passed a section of wall from the Ming Dynasty, itself three hundred or so years old. The trees on top of it needing room to grow has simply extended their roots down and over the wall, forming a vertical curtain of roots.

We paid another Y10 each to get into the tower and worked our way through the museum up to the top. The museum has artifacts tracing the history of the city. The main theme I took away from it is that the local government has recognised that there is a wealth of archeological heritage in the city and they seem committed to protecting it. Only last night we had talked about how unusual a place Shamian Island is with its mix of colonial buildings and central avenue where people sit, relax, meet friends and play games. We both thought it was inevitable that it would be bull dozed and replaced by high rise blocks but it now has protected status and should be safe for a while at least.

On the ground floor of the museum they had a model of the city. We thought we had travelled quite a way on the metro but from the model we have covered less than ten percent of the total size of the city. Shamian Island is one of the few low rise areas of the city, its buildings being only about six or seven storey's high. On the island there is one high rise hotel (its prices are quoted in US dollars and it is no doubt full of baby buyers) but compared to the rest of the city even this is small. What was also interesting from the model, and that does not come across on our map in Lonely Planet, is that the whole city is really built on a series of islands. Water is pretty close everywhere you look.

From the top of the tower you get great views out and over the city. The park stretches out before you but the skyline is again dominated by tower blocks. It is funny how quickly you adjust to a new environment but we had expected nothing less, so much so that neither of us had any interest in going to the main "downtown" area as we both know what to expect.

Throughout the park were dotted lots of little cafes and we stopped at one for lunch. Life was made easy for us because the dishes were out on display in front of us. You get a polystyrene box with the bottom filled with steamed rice. The top is then filled with whatever dished you fancied. Sitting at the cafe and eating lunch was our first real introduction to us being an oddity and the subject of curiosity. As we sat down to eat an old chap at one of the other tables looked over and, with a big surprised grin on his face, motioned that we were very tall. Another couple as they left stopped and chatted in broken English. They have a daughter at university in London.

A large group of school children going past gave us our first introduction to the term "laowai" which means foreigner. Foreigners are still unusual and it is usually uttered with surprise and curiosity. We spent the rest of the day off and on smiling, saying hello and laughing at the shouts of loawai. Even our clothes attract interest. One chap studied my walking boots intently and on the way home Stef's convertible trousers (that zip off into shorts) were the subject of great scrutiny and curiosity on the metro.

I am sure we will get used to the calls of laowai as long as it stays as harmless fun. What will be harder to get used to is the public loos. Even here in the park where the toilet blocks looked new there were no "western" style toilets, simply posh holes in the floor. For you men out there it is not such a problem but us girlies are not used to squatting over a hole. A little acclimatisational practice over the last few days stood me in good stead but even Stef agreed that it travellers tummy hits a hole in the floor will be a problem!

As we walked back down to the park entrance I mused over how China so far is very different to what I had expected. OK, we have not hit the rural areas yet but what we have seen so far is very modern, much more so than I expected. Inevitably there is McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut and we have even spent time today in Starbucks at the Marriott Hotel. The transport networks are efficient, hotels are comfy and of a good standard, the food has been superb so far and the people seem initially cautious but a quick "hello" in Chinese usually results in a chuckle and a grin.

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At the top of the fourteenth century Zhenhai tower

From the park we headed for the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. Crossing the road at street level was a non starter, four lanes in each direction, but again driving on the right (Hong Kong and Macau drive on the left). Down in the subway for the metro we tried to work out which subway exit we needed. A group of three teenagers came to our rescue and in good English asked if they could help. They pointed us in the right direction and off they toddled, no doubt chuckling about the stupid foreigners who could not find their way.

We made it to the museum just before they stopped selling tickets for the day. It is a key archeological find. Builders digging foundations for a new apartment block found the tomb in 1993.They have identified from artifacts in the tomb that it is the burial site of the Nanyue King who ruled from 137BC - 122BC. It is the largest king's tomb of the Western Han Dynasty found in south west China and it has given lots of information about policy, economy and culture in the south during this period.

The tomb was carved into what is called Elephant Hill and had seventeen metres of ground above it. You are actually able to walk into the tomb chambers themselves, a somewhat strange experience and one that would probably horrify western archeologists. The main chamber held the coffin of the king. Behind him was a store room. A chamber on the right had four sacrificed concubines and a separate chamber on the left had cooks and household servants. Musicians and eunuchs were also part of the overall funeral scene. They have been able to recover about one thousand items from the tomb. Flooding from rainwater means that the wooden coffins and screens and the human remains were virtually all destroyed. However, they have a huge collection of pottery and other artifacts that have enabled them to piece together the story.

At the time this king died, people believed that covering a body in jade would prevent it from decaying. The King was wrapped in a shroud and that in turn was covered in jade. About three thousand pieces were used in total. Pieces to cover the head, hands and feet were stitched together with red silk. Those for the torso, arms and legs were stuck to the shroud and silk was then tied around them in a geometric pattern. The end result looked like a slightly strange jade suit. I had expected the jade to be green but it was grey and while, almost like marble. The body was laid to rest on five large discs of jade. More jade was placed under the shroud both in discs and as decorative amulets and necklaces. The King's head rested on a silk pillow that was full of pearls.

From bronze supports they found they have been able to reconstruct ornate and decorative wooden panels that would have been placed inside the tomb. They had also been able to trace where the stone that lined the tomb came from and recreated the path it took down and through the connecting waterways to get it to this site. A variety of cooking stoves, storage jars, vats for wine and musical instruments, including large sets of bells, were all uncovered from what must have been a very well filled tomb.

Unfortunately time was not on our side and I would have liked to have spent longer there looking and the exhibits and reading the explanatory panels that were in English. But it was closing time and as we moved rapidly through the exhibits lights were turned off behind us and doors were swung shut and locked.

We spent an hour or so in Starbucks so that Stef could top up his caffeine levels and then headed back to our hotel. We went back to the same restaurant as last night, this time trying the sweet and sour chicken, a local Cantonese speciality. Not surprisingly it was tastier than what we get in the UK but the UK version is not too far from the original.

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Stefan's version of Tai Chi, on Shamian Island

We left the peace and calm of Shamian Island today and made our way to Zhaoqing. Seeing that Starbucks had a free wifi connection we stopped off for a quick check of mail and ended up spending a fair chunk of the day there uploading photos and doing other stuff. Having caught the metro here we decided to whimp out and got a taxi the last few kilometres to the bus station. The doorman at the Marriott helped us to explain where we wanted to go and before long we were in the thick of downtown traffic.

Our first impressions of Chinese traffic were that it was pretty ordered and far less chaotic than in Hong Kong. I have now changed my mind. Except for the lack of cows on the street and the quality of the buses (good) we could have been back in India. Cars, buses, scooters came from all directions and no one paid any attention to any lanes marked on the road. It is certainly not a city that I would want to drive in. The bus depot seemed equally chaotic with taxis fighting with each other to get into the lane to drop people off.

There is a big modern looking waiting room at the bus station and a small ticket office outside and to the left. With Lonely Planet in hand we pointed at the Chinese characters for the place we wanted to go to - success it worked! A point at my watch confirmed that the next bus left in five minutes, not long for us to work out where to go. The bus ticket was mainly in Chinese characters but we could decipher the date, time, our seat numbers and the price. There were other numbers but we had no idea what they were or where to go. Fortunately the lady on duty at the bus terminal door took a look, smiled and pointed for us to go upstairs. It then made sense. "2 43" means second floor, gate 43. The gate had our destination in pinyin and it was only then that I was confident we were heading in the right direction. The barcodes on our tickets were scanned and we were waved through to the correct bus.

The girl attendant on this bus spoke no English so it was down to charades for storing our bags. We hopped on, she came round with a free bottle of water, which seems to be standard practice and off we went. I do not know the name of the bus company we were with but they had an interesting livery. The attendant wore a lime green jacket and the seat backs were in Kermit the Frog green. Yuk.

The high rise mega city of Guangzhou gradually started to be left behind but it was simply replaced by smaller scale housing. Between Guangzhou and Zhaoqing there were some stretches of non built upon landscape but these were few and far between. Any space where land had not been built on was turned over to crops. We passed rice fields, flower farms, a winery and a whole range of other stuff growing away quite happily in what looks like very sandy soil. Water is everywhere about us either as rivers, small ponds or irrigation channels. The ponds were usually duck farms and their banks were full of white birds being fattened up before going to market. Where the land was used for agriculture small shacks were dotted about, clearly the homes of the people who farmed there. Again this drew parallels for me with India. The whole area seemed somehow full to bursting with people and activity.

Being pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get a bus to where we were going we soon learned our first lesson of bus travel in Asia. As the express motorway went off to the left we carried straight on and stopped a couple of times before reaching Zhaoqing. The slower route probably worked in our favour as we got to drive through some of the smaller towns and larger villages along the way. Here there were more parallels with India. Dusty pavements lined busy roads to one side and led to ramshackle housing on the other. Some of the blocks people were living in looked unfinished with no panes of glass in the holes for the windows. Where windows existed, they were usually surrounded by metal grilles which created the sensation for me that people living here must feel imprisoned.

Kids were wandering up and won and the same as kids the world over the were simply mucking about with their mates. We passed a couple of sleeper buses and both agreed they were something we would try to avoid. They seem to have seats that recline almost horizontally and are lined in tow tiers down either side of the bus bunk bed style. When we pulled up next to one there is actually a third row down the middle of the bus. They look like they have barely enough room for your average Chinese person. As I am head and shoulders above most, let alone Stef, I think it would be a very cramped and uncomfortable way to travel.

On the edge of one town one of the sleeper buses looked like it had pulled in to a stop, the give away being all the people on scooters carrying a hard hat, a cheap alternative to taxis. Although they are probably very cheap a scooter taxi does not look to me like the safest of ways of getting from A to B. A sizeable crowd had gathered by the bus and we thought it was just a popular route and that these were people pushing to get on the bus. Not so. A slight traffic jam had built up behind the bus and as we passed it there were signs of confrontation. The drivers side window had been smashed in and the windscreen looked like a couple of bricks had been thrown at it. It was the first sign of anger that we had seen. The Chinese pride themselves on being able to retain their cool and losing your temper in public results in a loss of "face" for all concerned.

While we were in Starbucks I had read the notes in the front of our Chinese dictionary - a sure sign of boredom but this time round it worked in our favour. It explained how to track down the Chinese characters, identify the pinyin (roman alphabet) equivalent and from here translate into English. It sounded easy enough so we gave it a go on the bus. On the seat back in front of us were four characters and we managed to decipher three of them. Next to the "no smoking" symbol were eight characters. We cracked two but the rest eluded us. Some are very simple but others are extremely complex running to over twenty strokes. AS there are about fifty thousand characters in existence we have a long way to go but we only need about twelve hundred to be able to read a newspaper.

Rather than the little over an hour we had expected the bus to take it was just under two hours before we reached Zhaoqing. The sun was starting to set and was a solid orange ball set against a grey sky. Strangely, compared to pretty much every other sunset I have seen the colour of the sun did not extend at all across the sky. It was just a single disk of contrasting brightness against the gloom. Much smaller than the three million mega city pf Guangzhou, Zhaoqing's three hundred thousand residents still seemed to live in densely packed accommodation, particularly compared to the similar sized towns we have been to in Canada. That said, the countryside is not far away. On the way into town we passed a man on a scooter driven van which was in effect a large wire cage. Inside was a great big porker of a pig!

Zhaoqing is set against a mountain backdrop and the city has grown up on the shores of a lake. Whilst calmer than where we have been to before it is still a real hustle and bustle of a busy place. Our preferred hotel was a short walk from the bus station so we hoisted our packs and set off, laughing at the scooter taxi chaps who were trying to persuade us to get onto the back of their bikes. Even though this is a sizeable town and one that gets a reasonable right up in Lonely Planet we got the feeling that not many foreigners come here. We stopped for a late lunch before checking into the hotel and near to us was a group of school girls all chattering away filling in job application forms. Every now and again I heard a bit of English and I am sure they were trying to work out a sentence to ask us a question but their courage failed them.

We crossed the road and headed for the Duan Zhou hotel. From the outside it looked smart and modern but as we got closer and then into reception it looked as if it may have seen better days. Nevertheless our spacious room cost us only £10 a night. We spent some more time trying to decipher Chinese characters in preparation for trying to get a good evening meal. Lonely Planet lists a street with food stalls which we passed coming from the bus station. Having walked past it we thought we would try to find something a bit more up market. We rejected McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut hoping that our ploy of basement food courts in shopping malls would pay dividends. It did not!

Undeterred we ambled back down the road our hotel is on. It seems to be one of the main roads in town so we reckoned it was a good bet for food. Shops filled the street on either side, some blasting out music at defeaning decibel levels. We passed the local cinema with its adverts for Harry Potter and were tempted to see what it was like dubbed into Chinese. We both thought we would probably find it funny for a while but would then want to leave.

Turning back to the hotel we spied pictures of food and steps leading up to a restaurant. It was large, clean and we were met by a friendly smile. As we walked to our table I knew we were in for more fun. The menu was under a sheet of glass on the table top. There was no pinyin and no pictures in sight. For the first time in our lives we were hungry and had no easy way to decipher what was available. We had brought our dictionary with us but stupidly had left Lonely Planet with its menu decoder in our hotel room. Fortunately, our waitress had a sense of humour and soon we were all giggling at our combined attempts to order food.

Rice was understood but then putting "fried" after it resulting in a bowl of chips rather than rice. Pork and chicken were understood but then she pointed us to the relevant sections of the menu where different options were listed. She finally sussed that we did not understand the characters and when she pointed at a dish we just said "yes, one please". Vegetables was easy, we just pointed to the table next to us where a mother and daughter were eating. They had a dish brought to them and the mother tried it and spat it out in disgust. Next thing they were up from their table. It looked like they were so incensed at something going wrong that they walked out without paying but not before the mother did an almighty clearing of her throat and spat loudly next to us. I think she spat into a bowl but it could have been on the floor. The spitting is still something we are not used to.

With our chips we had a large portion of steamed pak choi and then two bowls that were entire meals in themselves, one sweet and sour pork, the other fatty and bony chicken. It was not a bad meal and we washed it down with fragrant jasmine tea. There was far too much food for us to eat and the whole lot cost us about £3.