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Shrine halfway up the crag
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"Tastefully" illuminated cave, below the crag
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"Plopping" carp fighting each other for food
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Pagoda and old city wall

Our reason for coming to Zhaoqing was to see the Seven Stars Crag park, across the lake from town. We walked down to the water front and were immediately met by touts waving maps of the park under our noses. One in particular was persistent and followed us for quite some time laughing at our inability to understand him. We found the company, probably one of many, who run the boats across the lake and bought our tickets. They are small little motor boats with a covered section at the front to keep the boatman dry and an awning covering the part where passengers sit.

It was a quick hop across the lake. We passed a small pavilion along the way and a couple of people out in very small canoe style boats The were incredibly narrow and they were down on one knee, paddling their way forward. The park is named for its seven limestone karsts, which are huge lumps of rock set among lakes and waterways. A network of paths and trails works its way around and there are many opportunities along the way to stop and buy souvenirs of your visit. All around the park there are neat and tidy landscaped borders and as with parks we have seen in the rest of China so far, the park is litter free.

A short way into the park a trail of steps leads up to the top of one of the peaks. It was a 113m climb to the top and well worth it for the views. About a third of the way up was a derelict building that was divided into what looked like four or five small houses. Further up still was temple carved into the rock, the smell of incense giving it away before we got to it. To compensate for the number of photos Stef took we bought and lit some incense sticks, probably falling foul of all the common standards and practices for this activity in doing so.

At the start of the trail there had been warnings not to go up when it was wet and slippery. The tail has been concerted over and in most parts, especially where there is a steep drop down on the side, there are handrails. The steps were uneven with some very low in height and others quite high. One thing they all had in common though was that they were not very deep, not great for our Western sized feet. On most of them the concrete had taken a smoothly worn patina and I reckon it would be easy to slide down quite a way in the wet. For the most part the path was fairly wide, in a couple of places going through a small cutting in the rock, but the closer to the top we got the narrower the steps became.

The views from the top were superb, marred only by the smog like haze that engulfs the whole area, in fact the whole of China so far. A small pagoda is perched on top of each of the crags in the park providing a cool and shady place to admire the view. You could see down to the Five Dragons Palace below, a central pagoda with four smaller ones at each compass point, all built on stilts into the water. A large part of the waterway was clogged with water lilies, unfortunately not in bloom at this time of year. To the left a splash of gold caught my eye, then another, then another. They were huge fish in a pool below. People were feeding them and it looked like the fish were climbing over each other to get at the food. Abandoning our first route back down as it was a very narrow path with a sheer drop down to the left, we retraced our steps and wound our way back down hill.

Further round the island was the Dragon's Cave and our first indication that the Y50 you pay to get into the park does not cover you for everything. The extra Y10 to get into the cave was worth it though. First you are taken in a small flat bottomed boat on a tour along an underground lake. It is a slightly tacky tour as they have lit up rock formations in the cave in different coloured neon lights. There is an elephant, a lion's head and the dragon that gave the cave its name. One of the Emperors used the cave as a hideout during a time a of war and there is a small shelf where he slept. Surprisingly, as we went further into the cave it got warmer and muggier. Apparently it is warm in the winter but cold in the summer. The rock is mainly limestone but there is also some jade. In one part the rocks when hit make the booming sound of a large drum which reverberates around the cave.

After the boat trip there are more caves that you can walk along. A boardwalk path, lined with decorative bamboo railings, leads you past more illuminated rock formations, the inevitable shrine and down to a small pool which is home to a large turtle. AT first sight the turtle looks real but it is stone. A dirty film on the pool shows how polluted the water is here.

The path out of the caves took us to the other side of the island. Here a sign pointed to the Cave of a Thousand Poems, a strange place. The cave is quite large and is open to the elements but it has been turned into a big book. The walls are covered with different tablets of Chinese script, the style of which differs as the writing style has changed over the years. Here too was a temple. Once more we were frustrated by our inability to decipher the characters and interpret what the poems said.

From here we walked up to the pond we had seen from the top of the peak with the large gold fish. The fish had looked pretty large from up high but close up they were enormous. Most were the same orangey colour as goldfish but some were white and others steel grey. They are obviously used to being fed and soon a small group were all in the water below us, mouths gaping in tube like fashion waiting for food. We bought a bag of fish food and within seconds of throwing some in, the water below us was a squirming mass of fish. The newest ones to join the mass simply swam in on top of those already there. It was a strange sight to see and lots of squishing and gurgling noises accompanied the sight.

A floating restaurant behind us provided a good spot for lunch. Three large tables of elderly Chinese all gawped at us as we walked in but following the standard pattern grinned when we smiled and said hello. Our attempts at food ordering were pretty dire and we ended up with two different plates of fried rice. Stef, needing a chilli fix, tried to find a way to ask for spicy food. The closest he could find in our dictionary was "with lots of garlic". The result was a whole bowl of raw garlic cloves! The poor waitress could not understand why we were chuckling away as she put it on the table.

We paid a few more yuan to walk across the steel bridge which true to its name is made of steel plates joined together by big steel cables. Despite the signs saying not to shake the bridge unnecessarily, every group of people who walked across it made it rock as much as they could. We went into another series of caves lined with a whole range of statues of what looked like historical characters or those from old legends and stories. The tunnels looked like they had been carved from the rock, rather than being natural, and incense hung low in the air from the few temples dotted around the caves. From here we wandered back round to the boat wharf, stopping briefly at yet another temple where we bought more incense. The largest incense sticks they had here were about as tall as Stef and a couple of inches in diameter.

After a short wait at the boat wharf we were whizzed back across the water and into the hubbub of Zhaoqing. As it was still light, and would be for another hour or so, we decided to head down to see the old city walls. These must have been about ten or fifteen metres high and were very thick and solid. One of the main entrance gates was near where we were and had big red wooden doors that were closed, perhaps to keep out prying eyes. We climbed up what looked like fairly recent steps and walked a little way along the walls. The houses here looked very run down and with few, if any, modern facilities. The people generally looked less affluent compared to those just a few streets away. We did not want to get caught in the rabbit warren of the old town in the dark with no way to work out where we were or how to get back so we headed back into town and checked the time of the bus we need to get tomorrow. We are heading for Wuzhou and checked the symbol for it in our book so that we could try and decipher the timetable painted on the wall above the ticket office. We had managed to make ourselves understood but  were still very pleased when a lady who spoke English helped us out and confirmed the information we had got.

For dinner we went back to the same place we had gone to last night but this time went armed with more interpretive tools, our Lonely Planet and our Point It book. The latter is a small book full of different pictures of food, clothes, transport and pretty much everything you think you might need on your travels. We had a friendly welcome in what today was a very busy restaurant and had to sit in the posh bit where you got tablecloths rather than just a glass topped table. On our way up the stairs to the restaurant they had pictures on the wall of some of the dishes so we asked the girl downstairs to mark on the menu what they were and very smugly looked forward to a good meal.

As you can guess it did not quite work out the way we thought it would. What had looked like beef on a bed of noodles was spicy noodle soup with about three strips of fatty and chewy beef in it. The dumplings and rice were OK but Stef needed more meat and he decided to order and extra dish, half a chicken. We thought that would be trouble free but oh no! It came still with its head attached and I reckon it must have been boiled. The skin was a pale yellow colour and very rubbery and they had simply hacked it, bones and all, into small pieces. Stef found the few bits of breast meat but the rest was simply too unappetising and rubbery  to eat!

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A refreshing morning draught of sugarcane juice. Who cares if it's green?

We were up and out aiming for the ten o'clock bus to Wuzhou, our next stop on the trail. Getting to the bus station they told us that the express bus did not leave until quarter past eleven so we had time on our hands to spare. Near the bus station is the local "hungry hill" so we headed to a little corner cafe, much to the delight of its owners and the curiosity of its customers, and sat down to have some breakfast. I am still not used to the continual staring and I think the novelty factor of it is already starting to wear a bit thin for me. People also seem fascinated by our backpacks. I suppose we forget how much variety we see in our normal daily existence in Europe, particularly compared to a country like this which has had, and still has, outside influences closed off to it.

As we munched our way through yet more rice, others around us were eating what from a distance looked like a stomach lining, a long almost transparent rubbery piece of something. It was only when the people at the next table had it that we saw it was some sort of thin and stretchy noodle. It still looked unappetising. Any bits of food people do not like they simply spit out on the floor, and not just at pavement cafes. The place we ate in on Shamian Island provides dinner for its staff at about nine o'clock. Even here, in a relatively smart looking restaurant, the staff spat bits out onto the floor.

Back at the bus station we sat and waited for the bus, keeping and eye on the time and the gate as we could not understand any of the announcements. Before long we were on the bus and heading on to Wuzhou in Guangxi province. The journey itself was pretty unremarkable with the landscape becoming increasingly agricultural the further we went.

At Wuzhou we checked about onward buses to Yangshou for tomorrow. We are only really stopping here as there is no direct bus through. We bought tickets for the 8:40 bus, surprised that we needed to be at the bus station at 7:50, and then headed out to find a hotel. We had decided to stay at the Dongxin Binguan which from the map in Lonely Planet looked as if it was a fair walk away from the bus station. The lady taxi driver looked bemused when we showed her where we wanted to go and we soon found out why, it was probably only a five minute walk away. It is a new hotel and we had a very smart looking room with, unusually for China, a double bed. It cost less that a twin and I think it was designed for single occupancy. We only had two complaints. One, it was freezing cold and no matter how high up we turned the thermostat only cold air kicked out. The other was the ongoing saga of solid beds. It is nice to have a firm mattress but this one was rock hard

As we went up in the lift to our room a young man asked us why we had come here as it was only a city and there was nothing to see or do. Little did we know until we arrived there that Wuzhou’s main sight, the Snake Repository, closed down two years ago. Fortunately a lady there was quick off the mark coming to tell us so our taxi had not yet done an about turn. It is not often that Lonely Planet is that far out of date but we were surprised as our edition is from May 2005.

Instead, we decided to go for an amble through the old part of town. We walked along Nanhuan Lu, crossing over to go and have a look at a local market. Here they were selling mainly fruit and vegetables. Some we recognised – lettuce, onions, carrots, beans, peas – but others were totally new to us. It was frustrating that we did not have the language skills to ask and find out what they were. People here were generally quite happy to have their photo taken. One man who said “no” got such a ribbing from the others around him that he finally relented. He was chopping something, I do not know what, but his knife was moving so fast I had visions of him shaving off his fingers.

Around the corner we entered the fish section. The first stall we saw had a row of fish heads standing up in a row with the mouths still twitching open and shut – you cannot argue with the freshness of the produce here. I have no idea what the different types of fish were but recognised the shrimps and the turtles they had for sale. Outside there were more people with wares to sell but this time laid out on the floor. Although the goods were fresh the hygiene standard of the whole market left a lot to be desired and there was plenty of room for improvements. We are trying not to be too judgemental about the difference in standards here compared to home but sometimes it is hard.

As we left the market there was a row of three or four stalls selling what we thought was tea. It actually turned out to be sugar cane freshly mashed with some sort of leaves. It produced a very sweet green coloured liquid, the colour of dirty pond water. It was not an experience that I think we will repeat but it was interesting to give it a go.

The old town on Wuzhou had a very Mediterranean look and feel to some of its streets. Little statues were dotted along the road and plaques explained some of the town’s industry and what the buildings were originally used for. Wuzhou was once an important trade centre and many different nationalities had a base here. The buildings all had arcades with small shops on the ground floor. It was a mix of modern and old with bamboo mates for sale in some and small car repair shops based in others.

Down by the river a long paseo style walkway has been built about ten metres above the ground. I am not sure if it also acts as a flood defence barrier but it provides great views over the waterway and across to the other side of the river. A couple of small boats were out casting their nets. Having seen the colour of the water I am not sure that I would want to eat any fish they caught. We followed the river back down at floor level passing different shops that all seemed to be selling the same things – colourful packets of stuff with we know not what inside.

We ambled back through the side streets t our hotel passing a calm and relaxed bustle of daily life going on around us. Stef, hungry as ever, tried the wares of a little café. He had a metal tray, like the ones you see in films and on TV of prisons dishing up food for their inmates. A big steamer outside yielded a monster portion of rice and you were then free to choose what you fancied to go on top of it from about twelve different meat dishes and eight different vegetable options with the rice, meat and vegetables all segregated in their own little indentations in the tray. The round hole which I thought would get some sauce was filled by a bowl of soup that resembled dirty dishwater. It all went down the hatch and was tasty and cheap to boot.

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Riverside at Wuzhou

Having seen pretty much all there was to see and do in Wuzhou we made our way back to the hotel, stopping to watch a variation of a game of Mah Jong along the way. The people playing were happy for us to take a photo but just before we did they knocked don all the tiles and mixed them all up. They were seated around a low table on tiny little chairs that reminded me of the ones you see in the nursery schools and infant schools they are so low. They are common place throughout China and are not just for the kids.

Our experiences in China seem to revolve around making people laugh at our attempts to speak the language and the meals we have had, often both occurring at the same time. Having not really seen options for dinner out and about in town we opted to eat in the hotel restaurant and were met by the same wide eyed look of surprise that we have had in other places as we walked in. The waitresses were all jostling with each other to see which one drew the short straw and had to come and serve us. One finally came over, apologetically saying that she did not speak English and handed us a menu in Chinese. Help was at hand with Lonely Planet and we showed the page with different dishes, pointed and got a “yes” or a “no”. I am not sure whether it was true or just a stitch up but they came back saying that one dish was finished and suggested instead that we had Peking Duck (crispy aromatic duck as we know it), the one with pancakes, hoi sin sauce, vegetables and shredded duck.

Like the gullible fools we are we went for it and proceeded to give the entire restaurant’s staff their evening’s entertainment. We were almost the only people in the restaurant so all the staff simple lined up around our table, at a respectful distance, and stood and watched us eat. It was strange to feel so many eyes on us as we battled with the vegetables we had ordered, which were like purple sprouting broccoli, that you have to munch and slurp up guiding it with your chopsticks as you go. The real fun though started when the Peking duck arrived, not helped by us both getting chronic fits of the giggles too.

We were provided with knives and forks for the exercise which was probably not a bad idea. The duck had not come pre shredded like it does in the UK, it was still on the bone and hidden away under a layer of skin which looked nice and crispy but which for me was far too chewy and fatty to eat. It was pretty good and I successfully managed to prepare, roll and eat mine with chopsticks, much to Stef’s amazement. After a while the managers decided that their staff had had enough fun at our expense, which coincided with their own dinner arriving, so we were able to finish our meal without forty pairs of eyes staring at us.

We were up and out early and made it to the bus station by 8:10, half an hour before our bus to Yangshou was due to leave. Fortunately, a lady from the bus station came and asked us where we were going and we then found out shy the woman who had sold us the tickets yesterday had told us to be there are 7:50. Our bus leaves from the other bus station on the outskirts of town and the free shuttle bus to get us there left at 7:50. The lady helped us get a cab and we got to the right bus station and on to the bus with time to spare.

Having added “fast” to the list of bus ticket buying questions, a new one “luxury” gets added to the list after today’s experience, as does “does this drop you at a bus station?”. Even though our bus looked smart from the outside the inside was well and truly worn. The seat cushions had been compressed and moulded from endless hours of being sat on and when a chap across the aisle got up he took the seat next door with him it was so loose. They were also firmly clapped out in the fully reclined position and we both spent a pretty uncomfortable seven hours getting to Yangshou.

Leaving Wuzhou you are very quickly and very definitely in the countryside where people are poor. Agriculture is the main activity and terraced rice fields lined most of the route. Bright patches of green yielded salads and vegetables but they were in the minority. Dirt and rubbish lined the roads; the first time in China I have noticed this. IT was not quite on a par with India but then cartloads of rubbish are not tipped out onto the streets here to provide food for the cows. Small communities lined the road with people living in what looked like very basic conditions. Even where newer blocks were going up the rooms inside looked soulless and bare with large and garish light decorations hanging down from the ceilings.

Limestone karsts, like the ones we had seen in Zhaoqing, lined the route increasing in number the further west we went. They are a really unusual sight to and to me looked like huge dragons teeth. I could believe them being the source of a whole range of myths and legends especially if they had caves with hidden secrets. Neither of us knows the process of their formation and we are intrigued. I just hope that they retain the beauty of the region as it (inevitably) develops. Roads are being built all over the place to bring expressways to the area. SO far just the concrete supports are visible. They should be an improvement on our journey which was part good road and part bad.

The change in road surface seemed to be the prompt for natural breaks in the journey. At the start and end where the roads were good we had a pretty crazy driver who liked to overtake anything pretty much regardless of what else was on the road and what was coming in the other direction. The middle section was more of a windy road and the road surface was pretty poor. Thankfully the driver on this section was more careful, almost overly cautious. Half way through the bus pulled up for a fifteen minutes break, a long stop because lunch was thrown in as part of the fare. Not trusting my stomach on a bus with no loo on board I declined food but Stef tucked in heartily declaring it to be very good. As the others passengers also tucked in visions of pigs scoffing away sprang to mind. I know chopsticks are not the easiest of implements to use but the slurping, chomping and snorting sounds that accompany twenty Chinese people eating are almost on a par with them retching and spitting on the street.

I decided in South America that travelling by bus is one of my least favourite modes of transport. The seats are invariably uncomfortable and/or broken and you are subjected to endless noise either from the other passengers or from films and music blaring out from the TV. That said the first film on this bus was not too bad, romantic boy falls in love with girl and they get married at the end, although the second film was pretty violent. Stef’s romantic visions, notions and ideas of travelling by bus also waned quite quickly as the discomfort set in.

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Taking a break on the long bus ride

We finally arrived in Yangshou at about 4pm. Having assumed we would be dropped off at a bus station we were both surprised to be bundled out at a road junction with nothing around to help us get our bearings to see which was to go to get to the town centre. Lonely Planet warms about touts in this area, as it is a big tourist spot, and unfortunately our experience for the first fifteen minutes of being off the bus was a bad one. AS soon as we were on the pavement a tout latched on to us. Initially it was just the usual “where are you from” but then the increasingly persistent “where are you staying? You have reservation? Look my hotel very good” type of questions. We tried to get the girl on the bus to help us get a taxi. All she did was turn to talk to the tout that we were trying to get rid off.

She pointed vaguely in the direction of the other side of the junction and off we set, tout in tow. We repeatedly said to hi that we did not need his help or a hotel but he would not take it. And then he turned very nasty and aggressive. I had seen a police car back the way we came so we headed for it but they drove off before we reached them. With no taxis in sight, and the tout still on our heels, we made our way into the nearest hotel and asked them to get a taxi for us, itself a difficult process due to the lack of a common language. The tout was still outside ranting to other people, watching us in the hotel. The taxi finally arrived and took us to the centre upping his initial Y2 for the fare to Y15 and also getting nasty when we refused to pay more than Y10. It was not a great started and left us both feeling a bit shaken. I for one did not really feel inclined to stay and spend money here if that it was we will encounter.

It is really hard to think when you are being hounded like that and neither of us really got our bearings before we started to look for our chosen hotel, the Morning Sun. As such we walked the full length of West Street before we realised we were on the wrong road. When we got to the hotel a Dutch lady was checking out and as we chatted she told us she had got her room for Y120, useful as we were able to bargain them down to that too. We had a friendly welcome and the hotel was charming. Set around an open courtyard, dark wooden balconies and stairways lead you through to the rooms. Our room was tastefully decorated but we again found it cold and to have solid beds. Spare duvets helped to soften the mattress but the only way I could keep warm in the room was by getting into bed.

We chilled out for a while to recover from the bus journey and then headed out for dinner. The main street is pretty much full of bars, restaurants and tourist shops and even relatively early in the evening music was blaring out. We were glad we had not gone for a hotel on this street. We opted to go to Le Votre Café, a French restaurant where we had great Chinese food. The building looked like it was an old meeting hall and it was packed full of statues, sedan chairs, old furniture and other trinkets. A heater under the table kept us warm, much needed as it was a cold night. As we finished eating Stef pointed to the ceiling where a couple of rats were running around totally ignored by the staff. I was glad we had seen them after we had eaten and not before!

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Limestone rocks around Yangshuo
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Old (Ming dynasty) streets of Xingping

I woke today feeling pretty foul and full of cold so we had a slow start and a Chinese breakfast in the hotel café downstairs – dumplings, tea, soya bean milk and a kind of doughnuty type bread. Across the street was an agency offering tours so we went to find out about boat trips on the river to enjoy the karst landscape and the possibility of getting out and about into the local villages. Both of course are possible for a fee. The chap behind the desk spoke good English and was friendly enough but I think we were both wondering if we had been suckered and whether we would get value for money.

We opted to do the Li River trip this afternoon and were bundled down to the little local bus station for a bus to Xingping, about forty minutes away. AS in South America, the bus quickly left the station but then spent tem minutes crawling through town trying to pick up extra passengers before it finally picked up steam and headed off. People came on board with big sacks of shopping, I would have loved to have a peak inside, and babies strapped to their backs.

The route to Xingping went through a flat agricultural plan with limestone karsts in the background as far as you could see. The villages along the way were smaller gatherings of brick houses with brand new white painted three storey buildings standing out oddly a few times along the way. For villages that are so dusty and dirty I am always surprised that the local people seem to have a knack for keeping dust free.

Compared to the villages Xingping was large. It had a wide central street, lined with shops, leading up to a square where the bus depot is. We were met off the bus by a lady who only spoke Chinese and were taken around the backstreet to a little café and here the fun began. The first plug was to try and get us to buy lunch. Even if we had been hungry the answer would have been “no” as it did not look like the most hygienic of places.

We were then told that there were more people coming on the next bus out of Yangshuo and that we would have to wait for thirty minutes before the boat would leave, unless we wanted to pay an extra Y40 (we paid Y100 in total for the trip) to go now and have the boat to ourselves. We decided to wait which prompted the lady to come back every five minutes or so with a different story. The four people who were definitely on the next bus dwindled to two and they were then just coming to have a look and may not even go on the boat trip.

All in all it was just a scam to get more money out of us. We bargained them down to Y20 and said we would go now. We were then marched through the village and out the other side to where there was actually some water, as the levels in the river were very low. A few stalls lined the riverbank selling drinks and the inevitable stuff for tourists. The boat was a flat bottomed affair that looked like it was probably a cargo or fishing boat in an earlier life. Inside there were some tiny fold up chairs, all folded away, and no attempts were mad to get any out for us. As we handed over our extra Y20, a young lady asked if she and her father could join us. We were happy fro them to do so but our boat was pushed away before they could get on board or we could retrieved our Y20. It is obviously a well rehearsed ploy.

We cruised up and down for about ninety minutes taking in the scenery. The whole area is simply surrounded by limestone karsts and each bend in the river we went round yielded more stretching out into the distance ahead of us. Water buffalo were grazing along the river banks and on our way back we had to stop to let them cross in front of us. Here too the tour groups were out and about in force and we passed other boats packed with Chinese people. A little motor boat with four Westerners on board had ground to a halt in the river but had managed to get going again by the time we had turned around to head back. The trip was stunningly beautiful but it was marred by the noise of the diesel engine below us rattling away.

Back at the village there was another attempt by the “guide” to get us to eat in he café but again we declined. We were marched back through the village by a different route through some of the old parts of town. Here people lived in small dark houses, cooking on a small stove outside the door and with various bits of animals hung out to dry on the balconies overhead. The place almost had a medieval feel to it.

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A bike for every worker!
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"Serenely floating down the river"
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Hoisting the bamboo raft over the dam
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Pretty Chinese lanterns at night

Today we hired bikes to get out of town and round and about to see some of the local countryside. Not having a clue about where to go or how to find our way back if we got lost we had arranged to have a guide with us. This turned out to be the chap behind the desk of the tour agency company who simply left the office in the hands of one of his mates for the day.

The bikes came from a chap a little further down the road. I am not overly confident on a bike and seeing the racing saddle on the first one they brought out I declined and went for one with a more padded seat. It was a bit like a racing bike and the handles were on the low side. Stef stuck with the racing saddle, regretting his decision very quickly. We did a quick cycle up and down the street to check that all was OK and then we were off.

Our guide led us down some of the back streets in the non-touristy parts of town so that we avoided the main road as much as possible. Here people were going about their daily business preparing lunch, a whole cooked dog graced the table in front of one building, and sweeping the streets. We reached the main road and inched gingerly across between the bikes, scooters, cars, trucks and buses and we were then out into the fields. The route he took us on is obviously a well worn one and we probably did not really need to have the guide. A short distance down the road a small bamboo hut had a sign outside for “bicycle repairs”, not a good omen to see this so close to our starting point.

We passed through fields where crops were growing, mainly cabbage, pomelo, oranges and some cotton. The rice has now all been harvested and dried on the huge concrete slabs that line the road and only the straw remains in the fields, bundled into mini haystacks. It was calm and serene compared to the town but even here tourists abounded and there was a steady stream of people all with their bicycles heading in the same direction.

After about twenty minutes we turned off the concreted pathway and on to a lumpy bumpy dirt track. The locals were cycling up and down here without batting an eyelid but for us it was a bit of a different story. The last time either of us had been on a bike was this time last year on a weekend away in Holland. Before then it must be at least fifteen years ago since I was last on a bike.

Being the canny capitalists that these Chinese are, we were led down to the river where, for extra dosh, we could get a bamboo raft down stream for an hour or so. Compared to yesterday’s diesel fuelled trip it looked like it would be a nice way to while away some time so we duly parted with cash. The rafts are made of ten thick bamboo poles, strapped together and raised slightly at either end. A couple of wicker chairs are strapped on in the middle and the bikes simply get slung onto the back behind the chairs. A chap with a long bamboo pole then punts you downstream.

Whilst Stef has a slight touch of vertigo and does not like being near steep drops, I am not keen on small boats because I always think they will capsize. It is silly because I know that if it does I can swim my way out of trouble but it is the thought of actually falling in that I do not like. The rafts seemed stable enough but it was just a bit disconcerting that the water was not far below us. Stef standing up midstream to take a photo did not help and it was met with cries from me of “sit down, sit down”. As usual he ignored me and carried on snapping away.

As with the other section of the Li River that we were on yesterday the scenery here was mystically beautiful. Our boatman yabbered away to us in Chinese at several points, pointing out areas of interest or particular photo opportunities. Stef happily turned around to look at them but I was firmly eyes front keeping an eye t ensure that the raft was balanced.

The river loses elevation as it flows downstream and a series of dams have been built along the way. Each time the raft reached a dam, the boatman would ram the raft up into the dam wall and we would have to get off so that he could pull the raft over. Rather than putting the raft back into the water on the lower side and then people getting back on they use a more eventful method. As the raft teeters on the dam wall they indicate to tell you to get back on and to lift your legs up. The raft is then pushed down the wall and into the water below.

The first time we got a bit wet as our raft skirted the water but the second wall we passed with no incident, lulling us into a false sense of dry security. The third wall was a different matter. It was probably a two metre drop from the top of the wall down to the water and the force we whooshed down at pushed our raft below the water. AS we both realised what was happening the water rushed towards us and we got soaked.

A little way further downstream was big raft with people armed with digital cameras taking pictures of you as you come over the wall. They got great shots of us coming down, Stef with a “this is fun” look on his face and me with a “oh shit we’re going to sink” look. The bamboo is very buoyant though and we soon bobbed back up with much mirth and laughter all round. A couple of Chinese chaps on the raft behind us, seeing what had happened, refused to go over the wall on their raft and had it lowered into the water before they got on, sensible things. When I later explained what had happened to our guide he said that he had told the raft man not to send us over that particular wall on the raft so the joke was definitely on us.

As we went past the raft with the cameras they were ready to sell you the photos. They had a PC, printer and laminator on board all presumably powered by a generator. Stef spied the photos as we went past and they looked pretty good so we stopped to buy them. Other rafts along the way were selling cold drinks and beer and yet more were selling snacks and food. Sitting on a raft in the sunshine, but with a cool wind blowing and being soaking wet from the hips down was not a great way to spend the afternoon when I was still so full of cold!

All along the river were spots where rafts like this could be hired. In the summer it must be ridiculously busy. We had a few traffic jams with queues to get over the dams and there were not really that many rafts out and about. Most of the rafts were the same as ours but some came with parasols and other had little cabins on top as if people came for tea or dinner on the rafts. I have no idea how they get those ones over the dams.

This really was serene cruising down the river. As with yesterday, in parts it was quite shallow water and we got grounded once or twice. Other sections were a couple of metres deep. Reeds grown along the river bottom and the local people seemed to be harvesting them, presumably like seaweed to eat. As I was starting to get thoroughly board, the end was in sight and we were back on dry land.

Back on the bikes we took a short cut through a school and rode through some more countryside before again hitting the main road. We had come out close to Moon Hill, another local beauty spot. A village across from the hill provided a place to stop for lunch and also afforded us great views of the hill. It is another limestone karst but with a large circular hole in it at the top.

Our guide joined us for lunch and we chatted about the changes that China is going through. They seem to be generally seen as a good thing but there are also problems starting to develop. The biggest seems to be pollution. Certainly everywhere we have been so far we have not seen clear skies. We are not really sure if it just natural mist that hugs the landscape at this time of year or whether it is smog but we suspect the latter.

Both needing to dry out we decided to head back to town rather than going to see some of the local caves. It was a forty minute ride back, following the main road all the way. This got a little hairy the closer we got to town and when we had to navigate roundabouts but generally the traffic was quite quiet and we had an easy trip. Although our trousers had dried out, as I took off my boots I realised how wet they were and I had to peel off my soaking socks. As usual our room was cold so there was little hope of them drying out. We crashed under our duvets for a while both cold and trying to thaw out.

Later we stopped off at a local internet café to check our mail. It brought home to us how close it is to Christmas and I shed a little homesickness tear or two. We then headed out to warm up at a local restaurant before going back to our cold room and to bed.

We had breakfast at the hotel before making tracks and heading for Guilin. The lady at reception wrote down for us what we needed to say to get tow tickets on the express bus. They are used to the routine at the bus station and the express bus conveniently leaves from right outside the main ticket office.

It was short one hour hop to Guilin through more unremarkable countryside, except for the limestone karsts. The area around Guilin, and the city itself, is apparently one of the most beautiful in China. The bus station was on a par with most but with this one the bus had to fight to get in. Taxis were blocking the entrance and buses seemed to be coming from everywhere, all trying to get into the one single lane entrance to the station. Once inside our bus simply stopped as soon as there was space and bundled everyone out. A taxi stood waiting and for the tourist price of Y20 took us to our hotel.

With me not feeling too great we decided to go for a slightly more expensive hotel in the hope that the room would be warm and the bed soft. The Universal Hotel did not disappoint although the room was slightly faded and worn. A doorman hopped down the steps to help us with our bags and then led us through a cavernous marble lobby to reception. Here they checked our passports before confirming that they did have a room for the night. Not only do we have space but we also have a view our across the Li River and over to the Seven Star park, where the peaks are apparently in the formation of the Great Bear constellation.

We sat and watched the activity on the river for a while before heading into town. The hotel is by the main Liberation bridge. To the left, the water level was so low that there were just a few pools of water here and there. To the right the river appears to be in full flow. It is almost as if there is some sort of dam under the bridge but not so, it is just the way the river runs. Bamboo rafts, like the one we got soaked on in Yangshou, were plying up and down the river and there were also a couple of people swimming, not something that I think I would choose to do in these waters. Local fishermen were out with their nets balancing on very narrow bamboo rafts. Here they use cormorants to dive in a catch the fish, swiping the fish from the birds before they can eat them.

Our first impressions of Guilin were positive. It is a very green city but it also looks clean and well organised. There is no litter lining the streets and, apart from the bus station, the traffic seems to flow in an orderly and organised fashion. Our taxi brought us by the scenic route to out hotel, along the river bank, where there is a wide pavement for people to stroll along under the shade of large trees.

We spent the afternoon making plans for the next few days using the China International Travel Service. It is listed in Lonely Planet and for us therefore is classed as “approved” and there was a very friendly and helpful chap behind the desk who spoke English. We checked the option for onward travel to Kunming. We can either fly there for Y930 each or for Y350 (Y270 for the ticket, the rest commission) we can take the train, a twenty three hour trip. A long train journey is something that Stef in particular has wanted to do for ages. It has romantic connotations of watching the world go by through the window as you gracefully glide across the country. Even though we both know that the reality will be very different we opted for the train, hoping that we have been booked into the “luxury” soft sleeper class.

Not far from here (only a four hour drive away) are the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, which are meant to be a spectacular sight. Not wanting the hassle of public buses to get there we asked about tours. With an English speaking guide it would cost a staggering Y550 each, a hug mark when the bus and entry fees would be less than Y100 each. The alternative trip, for Y150, would be to go on a tour with a Chinese group and a Chinese guide with no English spoken. We decided to think about that one as either option is a fair amount to pay.

While we are here we also want to try and see some typical classical Chinese theatre or opera and we asked about options. He enthusiastically pulled out a leaflet for a show, Dream like Lijiang, confirming that it was traditional music and dance. We paid a deposit for the train and the theatre tickets and he said he would meet us at our hotel at 7:15 to take us to the show.

From here we ambled around and through town for a while heading back in the general direction of our hotel. We walked around the Shan Hu Lake, one of two in the city centre and then worked up through the shopping district to the main central square. Hungry we went in search of food. The option listed in Lonely Planet (Anna’s) was closed but across the street on the first floor was another hopeful looking option. We were met with friendly smiles but the language barrier kicked in.

Fortunately it was a buffet style place. They gave you a slip of paper and you went and pointed at what you wanted to eat and they then brought it to your table. Not knowing the score we assumed that everything we chose would be heated up but that was not the case. We had cold spicy noodles with spicy fish (that I think was eel), something else that we could not place and a local egg dish. They marinade the eggs somehow so the yolk goes black and the white turns to a clear brown jelly looking consistency. Stef assured me that it tasted good but I could not bring myself to eat it.

By this stage I was feeling pretty foul again so we ambled back to the hotel, stocking up on drinks along the way and chilled out while waiting for our evening’s entertainment. Our chappy duly arrived at 7:15 and bundled us into a cab. This surprised me as we had passed what looked like a theatre in town and I had just assumed that the show would be there. We crossed the river and drove our through a different part of Guilin, again neat, tidy and clean. After about ten minutes we turned into the entrance for the theatre and I think we both knew then that we were not going to see what we had hoped we would see.

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Li river lit up at night, in Guilin

The car park was full of coaches and the theatre was full of groups of Chinese tourists. Our chap got our tickets and showed us through and into our seats. As with the bus, everyone was given a free bottle of water on their way in to the theatre. My concerns at upsetting people with my coughing were soon allayed as people were quite happy to chatter away during the show.

And what a show! I know we probably were not meant to but we chuckled our way through it, the laughter setting me off coughing every time. It was like a poor imitation of Cirque du Soleil. There was a big cast including dancers, clowns and acrobats with the acrobats stealing the show each time they came on stage. The dancers performed western style ballet to western music. It was a bit stiff and starchy and none of them really looked as if they were enjoying themselves, especially in one of their last bits that was disco dancing. We were close to the stage and you could clearly see that the costumes were a bulk order and did not fit most of the dancers properly. The clowns were a bit tame and did not really get the crowd going but the acrobats were good fun. They tumbled, leaped and juggle making an otherwise laughably painful show something worth watching.

One little chap built a tower out of chairs and climbed to the top doing handstands as he went. He was tiny and I could not decide if he was an adult or a child, but then I had that problem with most of the people on stage. As you can probably guess it was about as far removed from traditional Chinese dance as you could get. The chap from the travel agency had proudly told us that some bigwig is taking this show on an international tour. If it comes to a theatre near you save your pennies or go and see something else. Next to us was a tour group of Chinese men and they were also chuckling away at how crass it was, in between eyeing up the dancers!

We got a taxi back to the hotel and tried to get some dinner on room service, knowing that there was a menu in the room. Communication failed badly on this one and they also were not much help when we asked if there were restaurants near by. “Yes” was the response! We went to a place next door to the hotel called the Left Bank Café and breathed a sigh of relief to see a menu in English. Not wanting Western food though we got stuck as the Chinese dishes were only listed in Chinese. The manager, who spoke good English, helped us out and suggested dished to us. We had a really tasty baked fish (try that with chopsticks!) and a beef dish where they bring a pot of hot oil to the table and tip the meat in so that it is freshly cooked. All in all a good dinner.

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With Jimmy and Johnny
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Confucius he say "you pass exam"

We woke to a sunny but hazy day. Stef got a great shot of the sun rise through the clouds and misty air which surrounds the city. We ambled down into town for some breakfast, stopping at a little café in the main shopping street which served western breakfasts. Stef’s cappuccino came in a really swanky decorative cup, not what I had expected to see in China, more a top London restaurant type of thing.

With our cash supplies running low we found the local Bank of China branch and with surprising ease got extra cash. I think I had expected it to be a long winded and complex process like we have encountered in India but no. On our way there, a young man caught up with us in the street and started to chat away in English. With our Yangshou experience fresh in our minds we were both wary expecting him to be a tout who would turn nasty when we declined to buy whatever he was offering, but no, he seemed genuine enough.

As we walked back past the Shan Hu Lake, the same thing happened. This time two students, Jimmy and Johnny, caught up with us, coming up on either side. They also just wanted to have the opportunity to practice their English One was studying law, but expected the bar exam to be very difficult. He was not very confident and whilst the potential earnings are attractive to him I am not sure if he has the burning desire to see it through. The other chap was studying to be an English teacher. He very confidently chatted away, steering the conversation. They asked if they could bring some of their classmates to meet up with us again tonight so that they could all practice their English. If we had given them the chance I think they would have spent al day with us. We agreed to meet again in the evening but they did not turn up.

In the afternoon we went up to Solitary Peak Park, just a short distance away from our hotel. On the way we were stopped again. This time by a lecturer from the art college based within the Park who had a very bad excess saliva problem. He also chattered away for ages. He was headed in the same direction as us so we made our excuses and went off to buy some drinks before turning back to the park. We ended up with the feeling that we had been followed during the day as we met this chap again in the park and also the first one who had chatted to us this morning.

The park is the site of a limestone karst and also the old Prince City. It is a walled enclosure and you enter through a large, decorative gate. A path leads you through to the Chengyun Hall, where guards in costume open the doors and girls in more costume show you which way to walk around. It was originally built in 1372 but has since burned down and been rebuilt. Only the steps and the carved stone railings date from the original buildings. There was some sort of museum inside but the information was all in characters so we could not really make anything out.

From here we walked further into the city towards the Resting Palace. In the square in front of this palace local students were putting on a display, it looked like music and dance. The buildings behind here have been turned into galleries to display the student’s art work and behind here is the Solitary Beauty Peak itself. A cave below the peak was used as a reading room by Yan Tanzhi, a famous Chinese writer, when he was the governor of Shianjun County. Tablets of writings were engraved into the cave wall.

Neither of us felt like climbing up to the top of the peak to see the views from here. Instead we walked behind it and went into the Confucius Temple and examination house. Passing the Confucius exam was a pre-requisite for people to work in government positions and students would come to pray at the temple for success in their exams. The examination hall itself was outside. Three long rows of small cubicles formed private and enclosed spaces for students to sit the exam. They would walk in, sit down and then pull down the desk behind them to sit the exam. Stef had a go but I am not sure that his picture of a bunny would have made the pass mark!

At the back of the city is a small lake, in a crescent shape. As with the river, the water levels here were very low, so low in fact that there was no water left in the lake. All we could see was the drying out cracked mud at the bottom with piles of building rubble. It was still a quiet and relaxing place to stop for a while and as we did we could hear the music students practising piano in the block behind us. It was divided into individual cell sized spaces, each with just enough room for a piano and for someone to sit and play at it.

From the park we walked back to our hotel along the river. Jimmy and Johnny had said that the water levels were always this low at this time of year. People were still managing to scrabble around in the bottom for fish in the few pools of water that still existed. The river bank here was lined with stalls selling bits and pieces for tourists, but the sellers had to drag themselves away from their games of cards any time a prospective buyer turned up, there were simply not enough people around to keep them busy all day. Touts were out along the river trying to persuade people to go on a bamboo raft trips similar to those we have seen elsewhere.

We stopped for a late lunch by the hotel and that was the end of the day for me. I had been pretty bunged up all day and a migraine strength headache was pounding away in my head and I simply had to crash out. Stef went down to meet the students who did not turn up, and he later sorted out our train tickets to Kunming but we just had a very early an very quiet night in.

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Fishing boats in the centre of Guilin

Today we just had a quiet day in Guilin. I was still not feeling great and I was glad that we had not booked to go on a tour to see the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng. It would have been about four hours both ways to get there and that was certainly not something I felt up to doing today. It is a shame that we have missed them but I keep on telling myself that it is not a huge loss at this time of year as the rice is all harvested, the fields will be full of straw etc etc etc.

We spent some time just ambling around town and doing a bit of shopping. I know I have said it before about other countries we have gone to but it is so frustrating not knowing instinctively where to go to buy certain things. We needed tissues, as neither of us are partial to following the Chinese and spitting and blowing our noses onto the pavement. Even a small thing like this was hard work as we did not know where to go and when we did find a shop it was down to charades to make ourselves understood.

Stef has pretty much run out of reading material now so we also went in search of a bookshop that sold English language books. The Xinhua bookshop listed in Lonely Planet was easy to find. It was in a basement and the lighting was very dim fluorescent tubes. They did have a small English section but Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Pride and Prejudice were not quite what he was after. He ended up with a collection of Chinese stories, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. The writer lived in the fourteenth century and wrote about the period of history known as the Three Kingdoms dynasty (220 – 280AD) which came between the Han and Jin dynasties. It was a time when China saw a succession of rival kingdoms struggling for power so we are expecting them to be colourful tales to read.

There is a new central square in Guilin and it is a huge open space for people to simply wander around and relax in. It makes me wonder how big Tiananmen Square in Beijing is. This trip will not take us that far north in China, probably just as well as it is freezing cold there at the moment.

We stopped for brunch at a UBC coffee shop on the square which is part of a chain we have seen elsewhere. It had a western look and feel to it and we were both hoping for a bacon and eggs style breakfast but it was not to be. Communication was a barrier here because even though they had the menu in English it was not clear what you got with each dish. I had the most interesting pizza I have ever had. It was topped with about an inch of sweet corn, hard peas and carrots and was particularly unappetising. Stef ordered a steak and pepper rice to go with it. Stef has explained his experiences in his diary so here is an extract.

I ordered “steak” and pepper rice. From the pictures I assumed I would get a bowl of rice with peppers in/on it and a steak on its own. I actually ended up with two complete meals. The pepper rice was a large plate which besides the rice and chillies also included a generous helping of fried beef. “Maybe they have cleverly interpreted my request for steak as being for meat in general and have therefore included it in my rice” I thought, but no. As more and more dishes were delivered to the table the magnitude of my faux-pas became clear.

There was a chilled glass of minty green juice, a bowl of pumpkin soup, a fruit salad, the cappuccino I had ordered and an enormous plate with a massive steak, vegetables, fried onions etc, a whole plateful of stuff. I could not help laughing out loud at my own mistake and the absurdity of the situation as the little Chinese waitresses delivered one dish after another rapidly running out of room on the table. Earlier I had been asked, with a printed Chinese/English page, how I would like my steak cooked and I chose medium rare. The piece of beef was in fact served blue.

With our dictionary we cobbled together the request “more cooked” but repeating this and showing the version in Chinese characters and trying the alternative “cooked more” were all met with bemused stares. Eventually I just gave the plate back and said “xie xie” (thank you) and got on with my sole remaining meal and sundry side dishes.

A few tables behind us there was an English speaking middle aged man sharing a table with a Chinese woman. Our waitresses enlisted the help of the Chinese woman who came over and helpfully, in what at first appeared fluent English, said to me “neck half ten”. I had no idea what she meant and she repeated the odd expression a few more times. Then the man came over, a fluent English speaker, but alas not a word of Chinese. I explained my predicament to him, which he then in a modified version of English conveyed to his companion, who relayed it to the team of waitresses, Chinese whispers indeed. Aha, now it was suddenly crystal clear. The team disappeared taking my steak with them, The man explained that you have to word the request as “cook long time” as the Western concept of a state of the meat’s cooked-ness would simply not be understood. Cooked is cooked and that is that. From his seat he explained that he was from Montreal and here to marry his wife to be, the Chinese lady. What sort of an arrangement this was we have not yet figured out. He had himself had the same problem and was “hankering after a good old cheese burger so bad you wouldn’t believe”. The irony was that back home he is an executive chef.

My steak came back cooked through but fortunately not dried out and very tasty but it certainly was not any beef I have ever come across, maybe veal. Other possibilities were too exotic/worrying to be considered.

The restaurant also showed another feature that we have now seen a few times and is one of questionable taste. Most of the tables are designed as if you were in a bar. They are quite low and have two two-seater settees, one on either side. It is OK for eating but is really designed so that people can comfortable while away the evening drinking outrageously priced alcohol. Here though they have taken the idea of a cosy romantic drink to a new level. They have swinging chairs, hanging by chains from the ceiling and decorated with flowers so that you can have a quiet little romantic drink with the one you love. Highly questionable taste on the part of the person who commissioned and made them!

We spent the rest of the day not doing an awful lot, just lazing about in our room and for me at any rate trying to shake off the under the weather feeling that was still plaguing me. With a long train ride ahead of us tomorrow we popped out to make sure we had enough drinks to see us through, had a light dinner and then went to bed.

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Hard sleeper class on the train to Kunming, looking rather like Alcatraz
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Sharing a snifter of Cape Breton ten year old malt with Eric and Ellie

When we woke this morning I think we both had trepidations about what the next day would have in store for us as we set off on our first Chinese railway adventure. A taxi dropped us off at the train station well in time for our twenty three hour trip to Kunming. We saw more Western faces in the half hour we waited for the train than we have done in most of our time in mainland China. Even so the majority of passengers were Chinese.

Our bags were scanned airport style as we entered the train station and we then went up to sit in the waiting room. There is something about Chinese public buildings that seems to create the need for large cavernous rooms with very dim lighting. The electricity they must save by not lighting buildings during the day must enable them to keep up the bright and garish neon displays that are a feature of every Chinese city we have been in. There was no hustle and bustle of vendors trying to get you to buy last minute wares, much to Stef’s disappointment as he was hoping for a spot of breakfast before we got on board.

With just ten minutes to go before departure they finally opened the doors and everyone streamed down and onto the platform. We found our carriage and before we were settled in our little cabin we were off and the mental clock was ticking down the next twenty three hours. We had opted to travel in style and went for a soft sleeper cabin. These are small compartments with a door you can shut to keep out the noise and smells from the train. Bunk bed style benches are on each side of the cabin and there is barely enough space for two people to stand let alone all four occupants of the cabin. A lace tablecloth, antimacassar style covers on the seats and carpet add a few creature comforts and the atmosphere was greatly improved when we found the volume control to turn down the endless stream of Chinese music blaring away in the cabin.

Our biggest concern had been that we would have to spend our time on the train in the company of spitting, snorting, throat clearing, slurping Chinese people, although it may have enabled us to get more of an insight into the local culture and customs, assuming they spoke English. But the sounds they made are pretty disgusting and they spit wherever they are irrespective of who else is around and about and it was not a prospect I considered with relish. To our great relief we saw Western faces and spent the journey in the company of Ellie and Eric who have spent the last few years living in Sydenham, not far from us in South London.

They were good travel companions and time went by quickly as we shared travel tales and experiences, talked about home and mused about how odd it was to be spending Christmas Eve in this way. Stef went for a wander to have a look at the rest of the train. One way was the dining car, which seemed to be endlessly full of train staff counting bits of paper and having little interest in serving anyone. The other way was the hard sleeper carriage. Open “cabins” with six beds in the space we had for four. Some were empty, others were full but even early on in the journey unpleasant smells were starting to brew. As we left the train we saw the cheapest carriages, hard seats. Not good for a journey as long as this one.

In some ways the most enduring memory of that trip will be the smells on the train. Whilst in theory being close to the dining car has benefits if you are hungry, in practice it was probably a bad deal. Every time the train stopped the air became full of a stench which was a combination of sewers (toilets were stand up holes in the floor leading directly out onto the track) and burning cooking smells. Frequently throughout the journey we had to shut our door because of the stomach churning smell of burning cooking oil and vinegar. It was the sort that goes right up your nose and makes you cough, not great for me and Stef as we were both coughing away quite beautifully under our own steam.

A couple of times during the day a woman would walk up and down the train pushing a trolley full of food. For about £1 you got a box full of rice and another with chicken, vegetables, pickles and a fried egg. Despite the unpleasant smells that came from the kitchen the food was pretty tasty and very filling and thankfully had no nasty side effects.

The landscape we passed through was pretty boring and unremarkable and with not much to see, a feature that is following us around China. We passed some rice fields and in others sugar cane was growing (it looks like bamboo but the cane is a purpley black colour). The earth has now changed from very sandy soil to being bright red clay like soil. We spent some time catching up on our diaries, much to the bemusement of the Chinese people who walked by, and we read for a little while.

If there is ever a case for someone to look at a journey and see how it can be improved, this has to be it. The trip was scheduled to last for twenty three hours but we arrived about half an hour early. One frustration though was the number of times we stopped. Often the stops were at stations and people got on and off. Unlike India though there was no frantic activity on the platforms with vendors racing to the windows to try to sell you bites to eat or liquids to drink. The longer stops though seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes another train would go by in the other direction but often we seemed to stop for no reason at all. I think that if you chopped the stopping time out of the journey you could probably halve the overall journey time.

By evening, boredom was starting to set in and we agreed that it was time for games. Packs of cards came out of bags and we spent an hour or so playing rummy, Shithead and Slap the Queen (not sure if this is what it is really called but we cannot remember the name Ellie and Eric gave it). The rules for the games new to us are set out below. Stef was on a winning streak and each time we switched to a new game he seemed to win.

We made our little cabin as festive as we could. Ellie had an advent calendar Christmas card which went up on display accompanied by a couple of satsumas and Stef’s little Canadian Mountie Moose, who, with a red jacket on, performed admirably as Santa. We still had with us a miniature of single malt whiskey that we had bought in Cape Breton on the East coast of Canada and it provided a welcome tipple. With no glasses to hand, four bottle tops made do as shot glasses and we had a festive toast or two.

As the night wore on, yawns circulated around and a little after ten we all crashed out. Surprisingly the beds were pretty comfortable and were long enough. As I lay on the top bunk reading my book I was trying to work out if the very deep breathing sounds that verged on light snoring were coming from Stef or from Eric. Stef was the culprit.

Rules for the card games we learned from Ellie and Eric

Slap the Queen This one is so easy you can teach the Indian guys who take you on a two night camel trek how to play.

Remove one queen from the pack and discard it. Deal the rest of the cards out to the players. Each player looks at their cards and if they have any matching pairs they discard them. The player to the right of the dealer starts. They turn to the player on their left and take a card from that player, discarding any new matched pairs as they go. The next player then takes their turn and so on. The object of the game is to discard all your cards. The loser is the person who is left with the remaining queen.

Shithead Best played with two packs of cards.

Three cards are dealt face down in front of each player. A card is then dealt face up on top of each of those cards. Each player is then dealt a hand of five cards and the remaining cards form a stock pile. The object of the game is to get rid of all of your cards. At the start of the game each player has the option of changing any or all of the cards face up in front of him for cards in his hand. Play starts by a player putting a three onto a discard pile. In turn each player has to place one or more cards of a higher value onto the discard pile (aces are high). While the stock pile lasts, players must replace played cards so that they have five cards in their hand (if they have more than five cards they do not need to pick up from the stock pile). If a player cannot go they have to pick up the discard pile. There are two “wild cards” in the game. A ten clears the deck so those cards are removed from play. A two reduces the value of the discard pile back down to three so any card can be played. Once you have finished all the cards in your hand you can then play the cards face up on the table in front of you. Once those cards have finished you play the cards face down. Obviously there is luck involved here as you do not know the value of the card you will play until you turn it over.

Happy Christmas!

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Your move!

We were woken abruptly at 6:00am by the lights being switched on and the guard yabbering in Chinese wanting to give us our tickets back. They had swapped these when we boarded for plastic cards with our seat numbers on. In this way they know who to wake up for each stop. Stef and I had both slept surprisingly well although it was pretty hot in our little cabin when we woke. There was not much space for four people, all waking up after a long trip to move about in, and by the time I had managed to get my boots on we were at Kunming station.

The station was large and deserted. A flight of steps took us down to where the taxis were and with a bit of haggling we chopped the fare down from Y30 to Y20, probably still more than double the cost it would have been if we could have got them to go on the meter, not something they seem keen to do here from bus and train stations.

We had agreed with Ellie and Eric that we would try and get a good discount at one of the better hotels in town so that we had a comfy space to stay for Christmas. The Kunming Hotel obliged with a rate of Y460 compared to their advertised Y780, not bad but it still brings it in as our most expensive since Hong Kong. It was worth it though. We have a large room with a king size bed, a balcony overlooking the main street below and English language TV. Not just CCTV9, China’s English speaking news channel that brings you global news with a Chinese perspective, but also an HBO movie channel. A long hot shower rejuvenated both of us as did a bit of a snooze while we watched Biloxi Blues.

Later in the morning we headed out into Kunming. It seems quieter than other cities we have been to and pretty well organised. We arrived in the dark so did not really get much of a fell for what was around us. We should have guessed really as it is just another city full of big tower blocks and shopping malls. It seems to be clean with no litter out and about and the traffic also seems to follow rules of the road.

It was raining when we arrived and although it had stopped by the time we went out the pavements were still slippery. We are not sure if that is down to what they are made of or whether it is the accumulation of months worth of spit that goes all slimy again in the rain. The water has left a thin muddy film on the surface, showing that although the city seems clean it is still carpeted in a layer of dust.

We did a quick stop off at the Post Office and then headed to China Telecom to buy phone cards to call home later in the day. The number 5 bus took us down to the centre of town, near to the Yunnan Provincial Museum, our planned sight seeing for the day. The bus turned off the main three lanes each way road and worked its way along a smaller street just one block back. Here to our left whole blocks have been demolished and the ground is being cleared to make way for new buildings, no doubt more high rise towers. To our right the old traditional Chinese buildings still remain with their tiled pagoda style roofs. They look very precarious and run down and I am sure that it will not be long before the bull dozers work their way to here as well. It is sad to see the old quarters disappearing but if this section is representative of the whole it is probably a good thing.

Stef popped into a noodle bar for a quick bite of breakfast. The lady behind the counter took a cheese grater type implement to a big white block and the end result was freshly grated noodles. Various different chilli based sauces were added on top, along with a sausage, all for the grand sum of Y3, about 25p.

The museum was interesting but disappointing at the same time. It was based in a big old building that looked and smelled like it had seen better days and there were signs of rising damp in the walls. A large grand staircase at the back of the building led to the upper floors where the exhibits were on show. The first section was a display of Buddhist art which was mainly just showcase after showcase with statues of Buddha and other deities. For us it was displayed in a very boring style. I am not sure if reading the Chinese panels would have made it more interesting but it was a shame it was so dull.

Another room housed a collection of bronze drums, some of which have been dated back to 250BC. The basic design of the drums has not changed much between then and the modern day which I found surprising. Most were ornately decorated and engraved but the dim lighting in the museum made this hard to see.

The final collection charted the development of pottery over the ages and this was the only part of the museum which we both found interesting. It showed the different techniques and styles used to add colour to pottery either by under glazing or overgrazing. Initially pieces were just glazed in one colour but as techniques improved multi-colour patterns and styles were used. Styles and designs also changed with time and the different dynasties as did the marks on the bottom of the pots that enable you to track back and identify who produced them.

We walked down into the centre of town, through the main shopping hub and out into another square. Large highly decorated gates were dotted around and it seemed odd to see the silhouettes of minarets from the local mosques against this background. Kunming has a long Muslim tradition. A little away from the centre was a small park with a pagoda dating back to the Tang dynasty (AD618 – 907) and a couple of hundred metres to the east was a further pagoda. The pagoda itself was pretty tall but looked unloved and slightly lost. The square around it seemed designed to be a meeting place for people to chat, gossip and play games but there was little going on.

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Traditional bowl of sloppy crunchy stuff

The road between the pagodas has been renovated and closed to traffic. On either side grey stone buildings line the road. A couple of cafés have opened up on the ground floor but most seem like shops that are still empty. Dotted around are metal statues of traditional Chinese characters, at play or at work. Part of the reason why I knew we were headed in the right direction when we were looking for the pagodas was that I had spied he inevitable tour groups of Chinese holiday makers. They were here en masse too all swapping cameras so that they could all have the same photo taken.

From here we worked our way back to the hotel to relax for a while before going out tonight. We had arranged to meet Ellie and Eric so that we celebrated Christmas together but before hand tried to call home. We thought we had done well to buy calling cards so easily this morning. I tried to call using the hotel phone but to no avail. At reception I could not get across what the problem was so they were no help either. As I headed back up to the room I bumped into Ellie and Eric and should have known then that we had bought a duffie as we had got much higher value cards for our renminbi.

In frustration we headed back to China Telecom to use their phones and then all became clear. We had not expected that there would be any restrictions on where or how we could use our cards. The ones we had could not be used in hotel or public phones. We can only use them at certain phones within a China Telecom office. Not great. Stef managed to get through to his Mum but my call to Scarborough resulted in a message on the answer phone and the worst bout of homesickness I have had so far. Silly me!!

Back at the hotel we met up with Ellie and Eric, and headed into town for Christmas dinner. Ellie has been dreaming of finding somewhere offering the full traditional turkey dinner but it was not to be. We headed to a place they had gone to for lunch, another one with settees at low tables and swinging garden chairs for young lovers. Although our food was not the best we have had so far, we had a great evening and a couple of bottles of Jacobs Creek wine (which cost far more than our food!). Ellie purloined some Santa hats from the staff and they also brought out to us some Santa stuffed toys to decorate our table. All in all we had a fun evening, rounded off by trying the local Chinese wine in our mini bar which was a bit like sweet sherry and nowhere near as tasty as the Jacobs Creek.

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Bamboo temple outside Kunming
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Lunch at the bamboo temple

Today we had breakfast in the hotel, Chinese buffet, before heading out to go and get our visas for Vietnam. We grabbed a cab to the hotel where the Vietnamese Consulate was meant to be but could see no sign of it. The building was part hotel and part shopping centre. The shopping centre was being refurbished and there was a huge hole in the middle of the floor, left open so that all and sundry could walk by. Not what we are used to back home!

Not finding the consulate we went to the hotel reception desk who told us it had moved a few months ago to another hotel. They wrote down for us where we needed to go, about a ten minute walk further away from the centre of town. This second hotel did have a consulate but it was for trade only. Their reception was much more helpful and they called to check where we needed to be. Surprise surprise we were in the right building the first time round, we simply needed to have walked through the door to the right of the building work, we went through the one on the left.

The process was easy enough. Fill out a form, attach a photo and hand over cash. We paid more for the express service so that we could pick our visas up today rather than waiting for three days. Vietnam looks set to potentially give us similar communication problems as China. They have their own script and whilst Stef said he had seen information in roman script in the Consulate I did not.

With the most of the day still ahead of us we decided to head out of town to go and see the Bamboo Temple. The doormen from the hotel told us how much to expect to pay, helpful as the cabbies first quote for using his services for a few hours was a 100% mark up. We finally agreed a price and the taxi set off to take us out of town. After a few minutes we hit the tail end of a traffic jam. Cars were trying to inch around a bend but traffic was coming from all sides and as the road narrowed down from several lanes into two it just could not cope.

The way out of town took us through an industrial area. You could not see signs of industry but you could smell it. There was a very strong chemical smell, almost like a strong smell of paint, which followed us for quite a while. It was pretty vile and I felt sorry for the people who had to live in this part of town. As with the old central part of town the demolition teams were in full sway here. The right hand side of the road is lined with block upon block of apartment buildings. They do not look that old but for probably about a mile or two they are all in the process of being knocked down.

We finally left the mass of the city behind us and started to climb up hill. The road switched back on itself and with the tropical vegetation on either side it was difficult to make out where we had come from. After a while we reached the Bamboo Temple. It looked very quiet and for most of the time we were there we saw no other visitors. We were glad that we had not followed Lonely Planets suggestion of going by bus from town as we saw no evidence of any buses at all.

The temple was perched on a hill and was the base of a whole community. It had the usual three buildings all leading through one another. A little old lady kept following us around making sure that Stef did not take any photos inside the buildings. The temple is famous for its luohan (arhats or noble ones). They are life sized clay figures commissioned by the temple’s abbot when it was restored in the late eighteen hundreds. The figures are quite amusing but also caused a stir due to their close resemblance of the sculptors contemporaries. The walls of the main temple are lined with freezes made from these statues and show people following normal everyday activities. Rooms elsewhere in the temple housed more statues and I wondered if they swap them around every couple of months to give the monks a bit of variety.

Around the main buildings are living quarters and at the back of the site is an open space with tables and chairs (all made out of concrete) dotted around presumably to give the monks space to socialise. We ambled around the complex, stopping to buy some CD’s before heading to the temple’s restaurant for a spot of lunch. Here a small corgi like dog was wrapped up in a blanket on a bench inside watching the world go by.

There was not really a menu here, you were simply invited into the kitchen to point at the vegetables you fancied and then the cooks turned them into dishes. The only other people in the restaurant were an American couple, who have lived in China for about six months, and a Chinese man who was with them and I think was their guide. They had an interesting array of bits and pieces on their table and Stef indicated that we also wanted some of those. The result was enough food for about four people including tasty fried tofu, lotus tree roots, mushrooms, noodles and lots more. Most of it was pretty tasty but there was far too much for us to eat.

The taxi driver had been very patient with us as a one hour wait turned into two but he finally stuck his head round the corner clearly indicating that it was time to head back to town. We headed back to the Vietnamese consulate to pick up our visas and were pleased to see that we had been given sixty day visas at no extra cost. It had been quiet in the Consulate so I don’t think that many people go to Vietnam at this time of year.

We both felt like having a quiet night in in front of the telly so room service dinner was ordered. The Thunderbirds and The Calcium Kid provided us with our film entertainment for Boxing Day. It made a change from James Bond or the Sound of Music but I do not think I would rush to see either of them again!