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Velvet

Chinalog (in honour of Bradm)

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103017

Heather woke me up at around 8:45 so we could get some day in before we had to check out.  We went down to breakfast, which was the same as yesterday except way worse.  I went straight to the omelet station and ordered exactly what I ordered yesterday and the guy gave it to me raw.  At least I wasn’t hungry anymore, and without all the pesky calories!

We went out to further explore our area, which was really nice.  Lots and lots of people were outside exercising.  We even came across an outdoor track for jogging, and it was surrounded by different, permanently-installed exercise machines, all of which were very busy.  It was basically an exercise-playground for all ages.  One was a wax-on, wax-off machine, there was a jogging/arm-flailing device, another was a sit-down leg-extender, etcetera.  It’s all starting to make sense.  We saw school kids exercising en masse, old people, middle-agers, everyone; and it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed a fat person since we arrived.

There were also lots of statues, all of people and all likely by the same artist; it was just a really nice vibe all around.  Soon enough we went back to the hotel, packed up and checked out.  We rode the subway to the train station and made it to our seats literally two minutes before the train left the station (for the record, I think it pulled out a few minutes early).  

It was one of those high-speed trains and it was super-slick.  Almost imperceptibly the train starts to move and smooth as silk it accelerates until the speed ultimately tops out at 246kms/hr (there’s a digital signboard that lists information including upcoming stops, outside temperature and current speed).  What was until recently an eight or ten hour trip took less than three hours on the new supertrain.  It’s just another example of the modernity, cleanliness, order and efficiency that I just never thought of when I thought ‘China’.  With close to a billion and-a-half people calling the place home I’m really glad they seem to be doing things right.

Anyway, as we were getting close to our stop I could see those clichéd Chinese lumpy mountains outside the train window, blobs of impossibly steep stone standing up like treed granite teeth zipping quickly past the windows.  And in no time (natch; we were going almost 250 kms/hr) we arrived at our destination, where we were careful to heed the recorded warning, “Be ready to get off the train quickly as it will only stop for a short time.  If you don’t get out the door in time you cannot get off the train.”

These guys like to keep to a schedule, except that early departure I suppose.  Their ticket-machines probably detected that everyone was already on board.

We landed in Yangshuo (or so we thought) right on time - like, to the minute - and disembarked (quickly).  There were about a dozen taxi drivers waiting on the platform.  They were obviously not allowed to approach us, but they had no problem beckoning us from twenty feet away.  Eventually we picked one and told him where we were going.  “One hundred Yuan,” he said, I said “No way.”  He told us it was forty minutes away, again I said “No way.”

Way.

Turns out the train doesn’t actually stop in Yangshuo (despite the fact that it clearly stated ‘Yangshuo’ on that very informative digital sign), but rather it stops thirty-three kilometres away.  We hired the taxi and enjoyed the rural drive to our hotel immensely, surrounded by towering peaked mountains the whole way.  

We arrived and were shown our room.  “I’ve upgraded you to a room with a view,” we were told.  The place is pretty nice, a stone and greenery complex with all kinds of different accommodations.  We dropped our bags, mixed some drinks and relaxed in the waning light on the stone patio overlooking the (very famous) Li River.  When we tired of that we went to look for the restaurant and found a cute little cat outside that I snuggled and named Mika.  

The restaurant was empty (the resort seems pretty close to empty overall, as of this writing I’ve seen just two other couples here) but we scared someone up and ordered some pretty great food.  After dinner we looked for Mika to give him/her a bit of beef saved from my plate but couldn’t find the little furball anywhere.  So instead we headed back up to our room for a relaxing night laying around and reading books, with a brief stop on the patio to gaze at the lights of the city below bouncing off of all those crazy mountains.  

We’re booked in here for five nights so we have plenty of time to see the sights, and we’re both happy to put off starting all that until tomorrow.
 

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103117

Boo!

I slept really well last night, despite yet another extra-hard bed.  Then, maybe around 8:30 this morning, shortly after I answered in the affirmative to Heather’s whispered, “Are you awake?” I heard a sound that could only be a ghost.

“Wooo-oooo-ooooo!”  

I rolled over and squinted through unfocused eyes and there, on Heather’s bed, was an apparition!  “Woooo-ooooooo-oooo!” it said, rocking back and forth.  Cuter than you could possibly imagine, Heather had pulled her bedsheet over her head and she was doing her best to wish me a Happy Hallowe’en.  It made me laugh hard and long.  For the next few hours every time I thought of it I burst out laughing again and again.  So adorable.

We spent an hour or so getting up and around and decided to walk into town for the day.  Our hotel (hostel?) is about three kilometres from the city itself, down a dirt road (literally down - we are sleeping on a mountain) and across the river.  It was a pleasant walk on yet another beautiful day, we found the water and walked a bit too far but soon realized our mistake and going back we easily found the river shuttle that took us to the other side.

We stopped for a coffee and played with a super-cute, very Chinese-looking cat (is that racist?  The cat’s very round face was so flat that his nose was in a little divot) before pounding the pavement lackadaisically looking for the touristy street that we knew was around here somewhere.

We examined the hand-drawn photocopied map the hotel had given us and steered ourselves in the right direction.  We knew West Street when we found it.  KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and moreover, block after block of shops and restaurants along a pedestrian boulevard with canals and bridges winding all around.  It was very modern, with updated traditional touches, and it made for a great day of meandering.

We stopped for lunch and a beer almost immediately - pizza and spring rolls - and spend the next few hours window-shopping.  We enquired about the river light show - the big tourist attraction here in Yangshuo - at an info booth.  There are two shows per night and tickets are around $40CAN.  We half-decided we would cap our day with the show and returned to our tromping through the shops.  

I bought a couple of t-shirts and postcards, a present for one of my nephews and a ukulele to plunk on for the rest of the trip.  Heather bought presents for her family and a few postcards for herself and soon enough I was hankering for another beer.

The beer begat another pizza which begat another beer and we soon decided to put off the light show for another night.  We do have five nights here after all.  Instead we re-meandered the streets, which got even busier after dark.  Frankly it became a bit of a madhouse, but it was fun.  While I did see pumpkin-lights in a couple of places and a few Hallowe’en decorations and even one, single person in costume (who seemed to be taking the fact in stride), for the most part the holiday didn’t seem to be much of a thing at all in Yangshuo.

Finally we decided to call it a night.  We found a grocery store for some supplies (water, beer, mix, chips, and Mr. Brown’s canned coffee) and looked into a taxi.  We realized too late this morning that we should have asked the receptionist at our hotel what we should expect to pay for a cab so we would know if we were being overcharged but we didn’t, so we were left to guess.  Given that the forty-minute ride from the train station the day before cost us Y100 we figured twenty, maybe thirty yuan would be reasonable.

Rather than flag down a taxi on the road, ladies stand in the busy entrance to West Street trying to book people cabs.  We showed a lady our hotel’s business card and she told us it would be Y50.  Crazy! I said.  She told me it was a long walk up the hill and bid me farewell.  When I came slunking back I offered her thirty.  She finally went down to forty but we still hummed and hawed.  Our hotel didn’t really seem very far away…

I remarked to Heather that we were waffling over a $2 difference and suggested we do it.  She consented and the lady called us a ride.  The drive back was indeed way longer than we thought, through a tunnel, over a bridge, and twice driving on the wrong side of the road into approaching traffic.  When we finally got back to the hotel we figured Y40 was a fairly good price after all.

Back at the room we looked at the day’s shopping bounty and I pulled on a couple of beers while they were still cold (there’s no fridge in the room, like a hostel).  Before too long we called it a night and turned in.
 

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110117

We woke up in the morning with few plans and thus, in no rush.  We lingered in the room for so long that when we finally went outside I took a Jack & Coke with me.  We went to the patio overlooking the mountains and Heather watched me do Tai Chi.  If only I could have watched her drink chai tea at the same time it would’ve been perfect.  In between bouts of reading we hammered out our plans for the next few days and strolled to the reception area to act upon them.  

And of course our plan got tramped on from the get-go.  We had planned to go to the light show that night but whattya know, it was sold out.  So back we went to the patio, this time with beers.  

Somewhere in there we had lunch in the otherwise barren dining room (where we convinced ourselves that we were the only people staying here at the resort), and rehatched our plan.  Back at the lobby we lucked out and found the helpful English-speaking lady was back, and helpful.  She helped us fill out our itinerary and we booked a few things, leaving the rest of our day as free as the day thus far had been.

I finished a book and started another, played with my new ukulele a bit and really, there went the day.

For lack of anything else to write, I offer some random observations:

There are lots and lots of butterflies everywhere we’ve been.  Every one seems to be completely different and their vibrant colours shimmer when they flutter by.  Waiting for a taxi one afternoon I had a butterfly land on my arm.  When was the last time you had to shoo a butterfly off of your arm?  It gives me hope for the planet.

They drive on the right in mainland China; in Hong Kong they drive on the left.  ‘One country, two systems’ seems to have many applications.  Like, money.  How many cities have their own currency?  Hong Kong does.  (So does Macau for that matter).

I want to mention the bicycles.  In all of our time in Hong Kong I saw a total of two bicycles.  In mainland China I’ve seen thousands, and almost all of them are the ride-share type of bikes, which they have back home but you never see people use.  Here in China they use them like crazy.  Who knows how many different companies scatter millions of bikes around the country, blue ones, orange ones, red ones…each company with their own style and colour (and subscription rates I assume), and they are popular. 

The share cycles in China don’t have to be parked at a bike station.  Rather, all of them lock up using a rear-tire style of lock that immobilizes the bike.  To unlock one you simply scan the bike’s individual code with your phone and you are sent the combo number that unlocks that bike’s tire.  Then, when you’re finished with it you can simply lock the bike back up to itself and leave it anywhere you want.  With so many people in China it probably won’t sit where you leave it for very long.

It’s a brilliant system and looking around it’s obvious that it works really well; everyone is riding one of them and it was rare to see someone on a personally owned bike.  Of course, the non-cell phoner in me bristles at the fact that without a phone you can’t use these bikes, but as it doesn’t directly impact me (yet) I can easily just sit back and appreciate the system for it’s cleverness and effectiveness.
 

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110217

Well, we certainly made up for our slow day.

Heather was up for the sunrise, I slept in until past 8am.  We found each other and got on the road a little before ten o’clock.  

Walking down the dirt road leaving our hotel I spotted something unusual in the woods.  It looked like three or four cases of Halls cough drops, but Chinese, still in the plastic.  I looked a little further and noticed two large piles of refuse, one was more of the Halls, the other was all packs of gum.  All of it was new, in the boxes the stores display them in, and all of it dumped just a dozen feet off the road in the woods.  Weird.

When we reached the paved road we crossed the street to the gas station and kept our eyes open for buses.  We were hoping to get to Xing Ping, but to do so we had to match the Chinese characters the guy at the hotel wrote down for us to the Chinese characters on the bus.  It took maybe ten minutes but we found one and flagged him down.  Y10 and thirty minutes later we were there.

Our main reason for going to Xing Ping was to take a river tour on a bamboo raft.  The rafts aren’t actually bamboo, they are made of plastic PVC tubing, but the plastic is moulded to look like thick sticks of bamboo.  So modern-traditional, these Chinese.

We hadn’t eaten yet, nor did we eat supper the night before so we stopped for coffees and omelettes, and followed that up with a pot of milk/coffee/tea, a blended concoction that tastes a lot like tea.  Because of the larger tour boats the smaller bamboo boats don’t take tourists between 11am and 1pm so we killed some time perusing the shops and deciding whether or not to climb the nearby mountain, which is one of the big reasons to come to the town.

By the time we decided to climb the mountain after all it was about 1pm - no need to kill any more time - but we carried on with the climbing plan anyway.  I ducked into a shop that sold beautiful wood carvings; they were expensive but I was pretty sure I wanted to come back before we left town and get myself a serious, lifelong souvenir.  Before leaving the friendly fellow who ran the shop we asked him where we might find the path leading up the mountain. 

“Go this way ,” he said, pointing, “until you see all the sheep and then turn left.”  

That was weird.  We had wandered much of the town by this point and we hadn’t seen any herds of sheep.  Moreover, neither of us had seen a single sheep on the whole trip thus far.  In a flash of recognition I asked him, “Do you mean the boats?”  

“Yes, yes,” he replied, “where there are many sheeps and boats, that is where you will find the path.”  Oooohhhh.  And so it was that we found the steps leading up up up, which were accompanied by many poorly-translated signs warning us (and everyone else) not to even consider climbing the staircase as it was clearly much too dangerous.

And up we went.

It took a good forty minutes or so to get to the top, but get to the top we did (after passing several more warning signs and lots and lots of litter).  At the peak we found a little pagoda, a handful of other tourists, and a pretty stellar view.  We met a couple of Canadians up there (first ones this trip) and chatted with them a bit before heading back down again.  The journey back was much less sweaty but even more treacherous; we had to take many of the high, rocky steps sideways. 

For the last month or two the sole of my left sneaker had been coming loose.  By the time we left for China it was half off but holding up pretty well.  About three-quarters of the way down the mountain it gave way big time, the sole peeled almost entirely away from the shoe and was left just barely clinging to the tip of my toe.

It was like I was wearing one big flip-flop; I guess I was wearing a flip.  I took it really easy the rest of the way down and made it to street level with my soul hanging by a thread.  We found a store and looked up the word “glue” in Heather’s phrasebook.  We were surprised that the word was actually in the book and even more surprised that the lady had glue for sale, at only $1 a tube.  And it worked.

Happily retrod, we headed to the water where - after much haggling - we booked an hour-long bamboo raft tour with another couple.  They were Chinese and didn’t speak any English but they proved to be a whole lot of help.

First, the lady we booked with escorted the four of us to the waterside and pointed us to a ferry.  “What?!?  No!” we said, pointing to the smaller bamboo boats that lined the water’s edge.  The other couple smiled and pointed to the other side of the river, assuring us that all was good.  Ahh, we would be bambooing from the opposite shore of the river. 

It took a while, but the ferry finally got moving and deposited us on the other side.  However just before it departed our booker lady got off the boat and walked away.  Ummm…I thought, pointing this out to Heather.  Again, the other couple indicated we had nothing to worry about, pointing to another lady sitting on the ferry that was clearly our new point-man.

On the other side of the water we sat and waited.  Heather and I had no idea what we were waiting for, but we were starting to worry.  Y’see, we had already prebooked the Impression light/water show in Yangshuo for the night’s entertainment, and we had to be back at our hotel at 6:45 to catch our ride to the show, otherwise we would have to eat the eighty bucks we spent on tickets.  And here it was nearing 4pm and we were not yet on a boat.

We debated whether or not to bail on the boat trip and try to get our money back but we reasoned that with nearly three hours left we would certainly make it back to our hotel in time to get to the show.

Soon a little shuttle vehicle showed up - basically a motorcycle with bench seating for a half-dozen people in the back - and we hopped in.  And waited.  Ten minutes later a driver appeared out of nowhere and off we went.

But to our surprise we didn’t go down a road.  Rather, we traversed an amazing little interlocking brick path through the woods, branches screeching off the roof and the sides of our motorcycle/bus the whole way.   The ride was so, so much fun!  After a pretty long time we ended up on a stony beach, and after a bit more waiting finally, along came our boat.  The other couple insisted we take the front bench and we obliged.  In a moment the captain dipped his long-tail propeller into the water and off we went.

We were surrounded by karst mountains on all sides, it looked positively Seussian.  After about twenty minutes of magical puttering along the river the driver inexplicably pulled up to a little village and dropped his anchor on the dock.  It was inexplicable to us, anyway, but obviously not to our companions, who quickly hopped ashore.  We joined them and found ourselves walking among a small village that was clearly very, very old, but had no reservations about throwing up brand-new houses among the ancient ones.

We took a few pictures and circled the village for ten minutes or so, and when we got back to the boat of course our driver was nowhere to be seen.  It was starting to feel like we were cutting things pretty close, but we were still very much in awe of the scenery hulking over us.  Eventually the driver arrived and handed us each a piece of odd, very bland fruit that looked a bit like a white orange.  It tasted like nothing, and then he handed us more.

Back on the boat we moved on for a few minutes before the captain abruptly turned us around and gunned it.  We went back the way we came and kept right on going, and soon enough we arrived back at Xing Ping, precisely where we had initially boarded the ferry.  As we got off the boat I asked our very helpful companions for the time and found out it was almost 6pm.

Woah.

Heather and I power-walked back to the bus station, cruising by a thousand restaurants that we would have loved to stop at and that woodworkers shop where I had been hoping to haggle a beautiful carving down to $200.  When we got to the depot we found our bus ready to pull out but we both had to use the bathroom so badly we were willing to miss the bus (and eat our show tickets) for a bathroom break.

We didn’t though, the bus was miraculously still there when we returned from the facilities, and in no time it pulled out with us on board.

The bus dropped us at the bottom of our dirt road at 6:34pm and we raced up the steep hill towards our hotel.  Thank goodness the glue was holding up on my sneaker or we never would have made it.  And not only did we make it, we nailed it, stepping in the hotel office at 6:45 on the button.

We even beat the driver, which gave us enough time to slip up to our room and quickly change clothes.

When the car arrived our driver kept up our pace, racing through the streets and depositing us at the big show.  She power-walked us to a small desk and told us to wait five minutes, our tickets would come, pointed to where we should meet her after the show and then she ran off.

Impressions is the big thing to do here in Yangshuo, and despite all our effort to get there on time neither Heather nor I were at all convinced it was going to be our sort of thing.  It certainly is a lot of people’s thing though; we were both shocked at how many people were coursing through the turnstiles.  

We got our tickets and were pointed the way in, which took us through a security line that was labelled in English: Explosion Prevention Line.  The crowd was being ushered into little holding areas before being corralled through the metal detectors.  I remember being amazed at the orderliness of the Chinese; everyone lined up in the most perfect lines within the holding pen without being told.  It was quite a sight.

When we found our seats I was further astounded.  I had expected a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred people in the audience, but there were at least 6,000 people there.  I guess it makes sense; the show has a cast of six hundred after all.  I was also astounded by the setting.  The bleachers faced the most picture-perfect cove you could possibly imagine, ringed by massive, towering mountains that rose up out of the water like fingers, all of them lit up like a classic Chinese rice-paper ink painting.

The show itself was broken up into seven chapters that chronicled the history of China, performed by an enormous cast who used the water as their stage.  In addition to the illuminated mountains there was fire, spotlights, brightly lit floats and electrified costumes.  Of course it was all in Chinese and impossible to follow and though the show started quite well, with two hundred kids waving torches in front of a hundred rafts sporting flaming bonfires, it was really fairly lame overall.  Considering each show brings in a quarter of a million dollars in ticket sales by my estimation (and they present two shows a night), you’d think the choreography would be a bit tighter.

But the reason this show will forever stand out in my memory is the crowd.  Never in my life have I seen a more disrespectful group.  Not a word of a lie, there was a thousand loud, nonstop conversations going on in the stands all around us - if anyone was whispering I didn’t here it - so much so I turned around to everybody in particular and yelled, “It’s absolutely absurd how much people are just talking and talking and talking,” widely gesturing with my arms.  

But that wasn’t it.  Aside from all the chatter and the absolutely insane amount of cellphoning going on, with fifteen minutes left in the show hundreds upon hundreds of people got up to leave.  Taking this as a cue, moments later entire sections stood up en masse to leave.  Of course this was just when dozens of actors were coming through the audience, leaving the exits blocked, so everyone just stood in the aisles, not caring a bit about the few thousand of us left trying to watch the show.  And of course the leavers were talking louder than ever, probably about how great the show was.  For them the night was over and to hell with anyone else.

And it must happen all the time, because the house lights went up when there were still a few minutes left in the show.  Heather and I looked at each other in wonder…Is it over or not?

I’ve never seen anything like it.  Honestly, it was an embarrassment for the country.  If the Chinese treat their own artists and their fellow citizens with that level of blatant disrespect I don’t want any part of it.  You won’t catch me going to another show here, no way.

I wanted to punch them all.

But I punched no one.

Outside we stopped at a store and bought some snacks in lieu of dinner (again) and met our taxi right where she said she’d be.  In no time at all we were back in our rooms resting up for what was looking like an even bigger day to come.

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110317

When we first arrived at the Yangshuo train terminal (which is actually more than thirty kilometres away from Yangshuo) we hopped in with a cab driver named Mo to get to our hotel.  Along the way he pointed out this and that, eventually offering to show us all around the area for a full day for Y400.  We told him we hadn’t made any plans yet, but I did take his card.

And after four days in Yangshuo we decided that the best (only?) way to see the main sites in the area would be to do exactly what Mo suggested.  Frankly, our hotel lady suggested the same thing, though she said she would arrange it for Y450 for the day.

The extra $10 notwithstanding, I liked Mo and I liked that he spoke pretty good English.  And Mo, if you are somehow reading this, I swear I tore apart everything I had trying to find your business card.  But I couldn’t find it, so we ended up with the same cabbie that took us to and from the Impression light show the previous night, Chim (or was in Ching?  Maybe Cheen?).

We were ready and waiting at 9am, Chim (I’m gonna go with Chim) arrived a short time later in her small, blue four-door Volkswagen Santana.  We briefly discussed our itinerary, buckled in and off we went.

As we were cruising through town headed towards our first destination I became acutely aware of three things: 1) I needed coffee.  2) I was pretty darn hungry, having eaten only mock-Pringles and mock-Oreos for my mock-dinner the night before, and 3) we were on the road that I knew would go by West Street, where all the Western food chains were.  I asked if we could stop in and Chim said “sure”.  

We bypassed the Starbucks (their coffee isn’t as good as it is back home and it’s very, very expensive.  Like, we’re talking $5 for a small coffee expensive), instead opting for the McDonald’s next door.  We each got a coffee and I ordered myself a sausage McMuffin and a chicken McMuffin.  Okay, I ordered them both as meals to save a few yuan and I got a couple of free hash browns out of the deal.

So, here’s the thing with me and sausage McMuffins: I thought I loved them for years and years before I finally admitted to myself (enough times) that I don’t actually like them very much at all.  Really, it was the fact that they were only available before 10am that got me.  I am seldom up and out of the house before 10am so on the rare occasion that I was and I saw a McDonald’s I would generally pull in and order myself a sausage McMuffin*.  

Okay, I’d usually order three.

And of course, after eating three greasy meat sandwiches without any condiments I would always feel a little ill.  And while I admitted this to myself every single time it wasn’t until I started admitting it out loud to Heather that I finally realized that I don’t really like sausage McMuffins.  And yet I’d still stop in for one when I got the chance, but at least I cut it down to just one at a time.  I still didn’t like them, but the tummyache wouldn’t be as bad.

And you know what finally got me to stop ordering them?  When McDonald’s started offering breakfast anytime.  Sausage McMuffins are no longer a limited commodity so they no longer hold any allure to me.  

I really should see a psychologist.

Anyway, the reason I ordered one on this day (or so I’m telling myself) was because they were only serving breakfast and I don’t eat eggs that come from McDonald’s (a guy’s gotta have standards, right?).  I can report that it was better than back home, if only because the cheese was cheesier.  

The chicken McMuffin on the other hand was a disappointment.  I only remember seeing such a thing on a McDonald’s menu once before (in Romania, though I didn’t get one then) and I assumed it was a junior chicken patty served on an english muffin.  

Nope.

It was actually chopped-up bits of real chicken, with some…was it cole slaw?…in place of McChicken sauce.  Though it was much real-er food than I expected I didn’t like it as much as I think I would have liked the McChicken patty, but it was still pretty okay.  I’d like to say that the hash browns were the same as they are in North America but I’m not sure, as I haven’t had McDonald’s hash browns in probably thirty years or more.  But really, the important thing was the coffee which, while sub-par, hit the spot bang-on.

I suppose it’s a bit ironic then that the first stop of our day tour was at a tea plantation.  Chim drove us up a mountain and led us through a building to the back deck where endless mountains lined with tea plants (trees?) spread as far as the haze would allow us to see.  We gaped and gazed and took a thousand pictures, which was good practise for the rest of our day, which would also include a lot of gazing and picture-taking.  

After about ten minutes someone brought us two glasses (yes, glasses) of tea, one green and one regular.  I’m not much of a tea drinker but the regular one was all right I guess, but nothing to write home about (despite all this typing).  The green tea tasted like warm water.  And both of them caused me to get leaves in my mouth every time I took a sip.  They should invent a cup (or a glass) with a screen near the bottom to filter out the leaves.  Way easier than a teabag, especially when there isn’t a teabag.

Cruising through the hilly terrain on our way to the next, unspoken destination Chim pulled off at a few viewing spots so we could do a little gazing and picture-taking.  I tell you, these karst pokey-outey mountains are just so remarkably picturesque (and gaziesque); I could just stare at them forever.  The mist that looks suspiciously like smog doesn’t hurt the old eyes either.  Okay, sometimes it does kind of sting one’s eyes, but it sure helps the whole place look pretty magical.

(Chim told us the mist meant rain was coming soon.  Yeah right.  If that’s true then it has been threatening rain every day since we arrived in China, and we haven’t seen a drop of rain.) 

Our next stop was some mountain that purported to offer nice views from the top.  We weren’t deterred one bit by the one thousand steps we would have to climb for the view, but we were deterred many bits by the Y60 per person fee to do so.  After climbing up the mountain in Xing Ping a day earlier there was no way we were interested in dropping $25 to do it again.  Plus with the pending rain (yeah, right) the view probably wouldn’t have been that great anyways.  We told Chim we weren’t interested and got back in the car for the next journey.

Which ended up being another unspoken stop on the tour, at a place called Shangri La.  No, not the real Shangri La.  This was one of those pioneer villages, set up to depict traditional life a long time ago, when things were traditional.  At least that’s what it looked like from a distance.

Bailing on the mountain trek saved us an hour or so, which I suppose is what inspired Chim to walk us around the perimeter of Shangri La.  It was pleasant, with lots of nice scenery, and it easily ate up that hour we had gained.

Next we drove to a bridge that was surrounded by bamboo boats, much like the one we rode the previous day in Xing Ping.  The bridge was nice enough, but again we surprised Chim when we told her we weren’t interested in a boat tour.  I lingered trying to get a shot of the bridge without any people on it while Heather stopped to buy herself the cutest bamboo hat ever.

Next up was another bridge but this one is actually quite famous.  It might be called Dragon Bridge, I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that it is over six hundred years old.  Okay, I’m not completely sure about that either, it might have been four hundred years old.  Anyways, it was certainly very ancient and it is quite a sight besides, and amazingly enough we almost managed to get pictures of it with nobody up there.  

I say “almost” because there was a guy sitting near the top of the bridge the whole time we were there, and he was endlessly playing with his phone and picking his nose.  It was so frustrating.  There were two different wedding shoots taking place at the bridge when we were there and at one point one of the professional photographers asked the dude to move.  He iLooked up from his snot and phone and immediately obliged, moving from the top of one side of the bridge to the top of the other side, spoiling an entirely different half of the photo opportunities.

As we crossed the bridge to leave I sarcastically explained to Heather that the guy must just love having his picture taken, so as I walked by him I stuck my camera in his face and clicked off about ten pictures, turning backwards to do so as I strolled by.  He looked up as I took the first shot and casually went back to his business, completely oblivious and/or not caring about my intended transgression at all.

I should just let stuff like that go.  I don’t know the dude’s story.  Maybe he was texting his ancestors who built the bridge in the first place, how do I know?

Let’s see, what was next on the agenda?  Oh, I think it was Moon Hill, which is a mountain with a crescent-shaped hole in it.  Again it was a big climb, but at only Y10 per person it felt like a steal, so up we went.  This was probably the highlight of the day, and while I found Moon Hill much more picturesque from a distance it was great to arrive at the top and have the whole place to ourselves (except two old ladies that were trying desperately to sell me some water, Coke, beer, or postcards.  How many times can a guy say, “I’m sorry, no thanks”?).  Just as we started coming back down we ran into another couple coming up, then another, and then a tour of British girls.  I hope the two old ladies did brisk business after we left.

As the day wore on we learned lots of things from Chim.  I found out that the circular concrete planters we often saw were indeed graves (Chim seemed spooked out that I even asked…Chinese tend to be very death-averse) and I discovered that the character I kept seeing that looks like the letter J with wings - /J\ - means what I thought it did: small.  “Shua” is how it’s pronounced.  I already knew da and chung, meaning medium (or middle or centre) and large and it occurred to me that the reason I didn’t know the character for “small” was because I had learned the other two from ordering pizza when I spent a summer in Taiwan twenty years ago, and I never, ever order small pizzas.

I should say that we learned most of these things in a very curious way.  Y’see, Chim doesn’t speak hardly any English at all, and outside of ordering pizza my Mandarin is almost non-existent, but she has this babel app on her phone (that’s what I call it) where she can speak into it and a voice will instantly spit out the translation.  Alternatively, we could speak English into her phone and it would translate into Mandarin for her.  Pretty astounding, pretty handy, and pretty common too.  We’ve seen it several times since we arrived; it’s a real game changer and yet another reason why I’m glad neither of us has a cell phone.

(As inconvenient and frustrating as it can sometimes be, one of the big reasons I travel is to find barriers and overcome them.  When travelling, even the most mundane tasks can often turn into crazy, challenging adventures, and if it gets too easy that will go away.  Don’t get me wrong, I take things pretty easy, just not too easy.)

Our last stop of the day was the one I was looking forward to the most: Silver Cave.  I’m a fan of caves in the first place, and the picture in the brochure of Silver Cave was so colourful, unique and engaging that I really wanted to check it out.  I was concerned that I was going to be more taken with the photographer’s skills than the cave itself, a worry I often point out to Heather when she comments that a hotel looks nice online (“Is it a great hotel or just a great picture?” I always wonder), but if you don’t go you won’t know.

Now I know.  

I’ve been in quite a few caves in my day so I know they are chilly, usually about 65 degrees or so, so I changed into a long shirt before going in (I was already wearing jeans, which I had regretted a few times already during the hot, sweaty day).  We got our tickets and English earsets and stepped into the cavern.

And I soon found out that any idiot with a camera could easily best the pics in the brochure, and the reason why is because the cave is lit with coloured lights.  It makes every picture look like gold.  Heather and I marvelled after the first few shots, “Why doesn’t every cave do this?”

We soon discovered why.  Though picturesque as all-get-out the coloured lights actually make it hard to really appreciate the natural beauty of a cave, partially because of uneven, eye-tricking lighting and partly because the candy-colours are so distracting.  We took tons of excellent shots, but had a hard time enjoying what was otherwise one of the more interesting and beautiful caves either of us has seen.  

There were two other mitigating factors: The place was packed with people, we’re talking wall-to-wall packed.  There are just so many people in China…it’s really hard to fathom.  It was a massive, slow-moving throng and when the cave would bottleneck it would literally be as densely packed as the Toronto subway during rush hour.  Seriously.

And all those people are probably what led to the other problem, which really dampened our pleasure (pun intended, as they all are).  Instead of being a cool 65 degrees in there it was swelteringly muggy.  Halfway through the two kilometre trek we were both drenched in sweat and clamouring for the cave to end.  And here I was dressed up for the North Pole.  After enjoying a pretty tiring day already, amazing as the cave was we couldn’t get out of there soon enough.

(Another likely reason that it didn’t cool down in the cave is because after entering we only went up instead of down.  When we exited the cave we were actually two or three storeys higher up than where we had started.)

When we emerged, the hot air outside felt like a cool refreshing breeze.  We made our way back to Chim’s car and rode back to Yangshuo with all the windows down.  Though we were both half-starved and in bad need of a shower I couldn’t resist asking Chim to pull over for one last photo op, as the nearly-full moon rose big and yellow behind the unreal mountain range.  Of course cameras in the hands of amateurs can never make such pictures match reality but you can rest assured, it was a remarkable sight.

Back at the hotel the shower felt like a million bucks and dinner tasted like gold.

It’s hard to believe the entire day of driving around cost the same amount of money as our two tickets to that lame, seventy-minute light show the night before.  

But like I say, if you don’t go, you won’t know.

*Remember, that’s a sausage McMuffin without egg.  My gawd, back in the days before the sausage McMuffin hit the value menu it was almost impossible to get one without an egg patty on it no matter how many times you told the dude at the counter that you wanted “a sausage McMuffin WITHOUT egg.  I don’t want any egg whatsoever.  Please, please don’t bring me a sandwich with egg on it.”

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It was our last morning at the Dongling Resort and we went to the restaurant for breakfast for the first time.  I was wary; when we had eaten dinner there before I noticed a few breakfast-ish items on the menu - “crispy egg” and that sort of thing - so I was very pleased to see that they actually had a wholly different breakfast menu.

I had been looking for a chance to crack open the jar of peanut butter I had brought with me so I eagerly ordered toast with butter, along with a coffee and a chicken and mushroom omelet.  It was pretty pricey at Y50 but I wanted to fill up.  Heather ordered a breakfast combo, French toast, bacon and egg and a cappuccino.  As per usual, all of our items arrived one at a time.  First came my tiny, little coffee, a small teacup half-filled with bitter, day old-tasting java.  I knocked it back in two sour bites.  Next came my toast, three full slices which, when peanut-buttered was a meal unto itself.  

Next came Heather’s cappuccino, quickly followed by her French toast, which was just deep-fried bread with honey, no egg whatsoever.  After some time my omelet arrived, which was large and in no way could be called an omelet.  Rather, it was a mountain of chicken, mushrooms and scrambled egg and it was absolutely delicious; the best plate of food I’ve had on the whole trip.  

We waited and waited for the rest of Heather’s breakfast to arrive until we decided her bacon and egg had been forgotten.  We mentioned it to someone, apologies were made and in seconds her food was delivered.  

After breakfast we both endured some prodigious packing and checked out.

It was not surprising that Chim was the cabbie that arrived to deliver us to the bus depot; clearly she’s the goto taxi driver for the hotel.  When we arrived at the bus station we hadn’t even gotten out of her Volkswagen Santana when a lady started beckoning us to her bus.  “Guilin, Guilin!” she shouted, pointing us towards the nearest bus.

“Um, yeah,” we said, shrugging our shoulders at how easy this was turning out to be and taking the two seats directly behind the driver.  In no time we were off.

The bus stopped several times along the way to seek out more passengers, which made sense.  When we had pulled out of the station Heather and I were two of only four passengers.  Before we left town the bus was almost full.

I noticed several curious things during the ninety-minute trip to Guilin.  First, there was a very nice, obviously new bicycle path running alongside the highway almost all the way to Guilin, and I only saw two bicycles on it during the whole trip.  I also saw about a hundred motorcycles and scooters and one car that was just flying down the bike path.  I’m guessing that the path will eventually get more use; I saw lots and lots of signs promoting cycling and sport as a way to help realize “the Chinese Dream”.  The propaganda machine is clearly rolling in the direction of sustainable transportation.

Speaking of that, the vast majority of the scooters are electric-powered, easily 90% or more.  This goes along with everything else I’ve noticed in China: everywhere I look it seems like the country is truly striving to be environmentally conscious, which frankly goes against everything I was ever led to believe.  I’m guessing that they are trying to make up for past mistakes.  Plus they probably are getting sick of providing free health care to the millions of people that get sick from polluted air.

I also noticed that it’s not unusual for vehicles of all sizes to drive on the wrong side of the road, and most traffic lights along the way were not working at all.  And while this should lead to deadly traffic bedlam, I only saw three traffic accidents on the short journey.

When we hit the city limits I saw that the passengers were being let off the bus the same way they were let on; wherever they wanted to go.  I asked if we could get dropped at the train station and the bus stopped in the middle of a busy street.  We disembarked and walked in the direction we were pointed, soon arriving at our destination.

We thought it best to take care of our ongoing transportation straight away and luckily the girl at the counter (who was baffled by everything we tried to say) found a fellow employee with moderate English skills that could help us.  We had suspected quite rightly that there was no direct rail access to Macau but after about fifteen minutes of back-and-forth we purchased tickets to Zhuhai, where we supposedly will find free busses running into Macau.  Given that Macau is a gambling mecca it makes sense to me that they would do all they could to make it as easy as possible for people to get there, including offering free shuttle busses from the end of the rail line.

Tickets in hand, we hopped a cab to our hotel.  It was the first time we actually saw a taxi meter in operation, and it turns out the cabs are dirt-cheap when they are being run legitimately.  The fifteen minute ride (due to traffic) cost just $3.

Our hotel was curiously named the Zen Tea House.  When we entered the lobby we were immediately ushered back outside so we could exchange our shoes for slippers.  The pair I was given comically covered just the ends of my toes, completely insufficient for my double-wide feet.  The proprietor noticed and gave me another pair, “For you we have these special slippers,” he said, and they fit like a glove.

As we walked in the door the second time the first words we heard was, “Would you like a beer?”

“Yes!” I said, a little too fast and much too loudly.  There is actually a sign on the wall that says, “Free Beer.”  I’ve seen my share of free beer signs in this life of mine but there’s always a catch, as in “Free Beer (tomorrow).”

This time there was no catch.  We sipped our frosty ales as we were checked in and soon we were shown “the best room in the hotel,” room 501, on the top floor with the adjoining rooftop deck that we seemed to have all to ourselves.  The room was very clean, modern, sparse, and hip.  And all this for $40 a night.

Just as the sun began to set we lit out for a walkabout.  We crossed a few bridges and found a pedestrian street which was packed with people.  It’s just amazing how populous China is; even getting a tiny taste gives one the sense of what it means to have over a billion people in the country.

Halfway down the street I turned to see Heather surrounded by a half-dozen young girls asking her a million questions in halting English.  “Where you came from?”  “Where you go now?”  “Can we eat dinner with you?”  Thankfully she answered the last question in the negatory and after a few obligatory photos with us we left them and continued our wandering.  

Up and down the strip we went, finally settling on a small outdoor restaurant stand for dinner where the food was cheap, oily, and really tasty.  So cheap in fact that when Heather realized that she ordered the wrong thing she just went back and ordered again, the price of two meals was still a bargain.

Our table in the alley was across from one of the many, many restaurants that has large fish in tanks outside.  Twice we watched as customers selected their dinner from amongst the swimmers, the lady netted out the critter, weighed it and gave it a quick, percussive smack on the pavement before walking in the restaurant and handing the fresh kill to the chef.  

I’m glad nobody ordered the veal.

Something I find endlessly entertaining is reading all the poorly/randomly translated English t-shirts that people are wearing (Chinglish, as one tour operator described it).  To be fair, I remember being sixteen years old and buying a shirt at the Biway just because I thought the Chinese characters on it looked cool.  It probably said something like ‘True Ice Cream Dragon’ or something equally absurd.  Anyway, as we hit the small night market I saw my favourite t-shirt of them all, though this one was neither misspelled nor a series of oddly juxtaposed words.  Walking with her parents I saw a very cute little girl, maybe around four years old wearing a pink shirt.  Printed on the front in Osh Kosh B’gosh-type comic sans font were the words, “Dead Kennedys”.  Take a second to picture it.  I so, so wish I had my camera at the ready.

Our destination was Shan Lake with the famous Sun and Moon pagodas, each one about eight storeys tall and lit up gorgeously under the full moon.  We slowly circled the entire lake, joining the throngs of tourists that stopped for picture after picture of the twin towers from every possible angle, and every shot was gold.

We finally came full circle and happened upon a park with a crowd watching a presentation on a large stage.  We joined them and caught the tail end of nine police officers demonstrating karate-like takedown techniques in front of a crowd that clapped and clapped.  

Fairly spent, we slowly walked back to our hotel as a never-ending string of scooters, cars and people zipped by.  They say New York is the city that never sleeps.  Well, those New Yorkers should really get a load of the Chinese in their own habitat.  Nothing seems to ever close, and the crowds never seem to dissipate.  It’s really quite incredible.

Also incredible is how they light up the karst mountains that ring the city at night.  The brightly lit bulbous mounds are a stunning sight to see, especially when shrouded in the Monet-type mist of pollution (or is it potential rain?).  

I never though China would be this beautiful. 
 

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I wanna tell you, people sure do smoke around here.  Well, the men do anyway, to a shocking degree.  I’ve seen women smoking as well, but the percentage of women to men partaking is miniscule.  

Walking through the streets I decided to see how many of the next forty men I saw were smoking, and I counted eight.  I did it again and strangely I got the exact same number, eight out of forty, that’s 20% of the men I saw that were actively smoking at the time.  Who knows how many lit up after they walked by.

And no wonder!  It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing, but every store has a display case full of cigarettes directly out front, with wildly varying prices, starting at about a buck a pack and going up to twenty dollars per pack.  It makes me wonder if people who smoke the cheap brands occasionally splurge and buy the pricier brands, unlike in North America where people tend to stay loyal to their flavour.

Finally, the way the men smoke is also significantly different than the way people smoke in the West.  Here in China men tend to hold the cigarette directly in the centre of their mouth pointing straight out, and they often smoke without using their hands, just holding the cigarette with their lips.  It looks extra absurd.

(People spit a lot too.  I’ve seen signs everywhere that indicating no-spitting policies; in the metro, in the hotel lobbies, in elevators…I hear men hocking and spitting all the time.  I assume it’s relating to all the smoking.)

Anyway, we awoke in our zen room and went down for our breakfast, included in the $40/night room rate.  We got to choose between Chinese and Western breakfast.  We both chose the latter, which consisted of an egg, a small serving of beans and corn, two pieces of…ham?, a fruit bowl, a piece of broccoli, two fat slices of toast and unlimited coffee.  It was all quite glorious (except the broccoli of course).

After breakfast we went straight to the nearest recreational area (of many), Seven Stars Park.  We shelled out Y70 each for entry (though nobody ever checked our tickets) and balked at the extra Y28 fee to explore the cave.

When we started into the park we found it fairly empty and quite lovely, exploring the many paths that intertwined around one of the twin karst mountains.  We constantly came to crossroads in the paths, and finding the map we were given to be utterly unreadable we selected our course randomly.  It mattered not, as we had no agenda and no plan except to spend as much of the day as we could in the park.

Soon we came to a vast interlocking brick pathway littered with families out enjoying the beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon.  Then we started seeing booths selling food, toys and souvenirs, and signs pointing us towards one attraction or another.  We found a temple, a rock climbing area, a large field ringed with statues of cartoon characters, a penny arcade where we dropped a few yuan into some obviously-rigged claw games, a path littered with wild monkeys (and huge crowds feeding them), and finally circled around to the zoo.  

Despite a large photo of a panda outside the zoo we discovered that there were not in fact any pandas (or red pandas) in the zoo, so we opted not to shell out the $13 per person fee to enter.  After a few more laps around (part of) the huge, huge park we got out of there, walking on tired feet back to our hotel.

We decided that the time was ripe for our first foot massages of the trip.  I had been saying that I was going to go for one almost every day, but somehow it had yet to come up.  The lady at the hotel desk suggested a nearby spot, where we were handed a menu offering about twenty different types of foot treatments, each one aimed at improving your life in any number of ways, and all of them priced at about fifteen cents per minute.

Which is dirt cheap.

Somehow we both selected the shortest ones, at forty minutes each.  We sat next to each other and dunked our feet in buckets of hot water that had been treated with a dissolving powder.  We were told to turn around and we were happily surprised to discover that our treatments started with a good 10-15 minute back massage, which felt fantastic.

When I pulled my feet out of the bucket to get started the guy went to work getting rid of all the dead skin on my feet, using a myriad of tools and utensils and going at me with an almost comic fervour that had debris flying all around.  I swear, the guy should have been wearing safety goggles and a hazmat suit.  Easiest weight loss program ever.

I guess I should point out to those that don’t know me: I have very unusual feet.  As a matter of fact, a drawing of my left foot is the title page of the physical pathology section in the international medical encyclopedia from the year 2000.  I have a hereditary condition called Hallux Vagus (the most extreme case in my family).  

Imagine this: as we are forming in the womb our feet begin to grow much the same as our fingers, though there is a tendon that pulls them together at the first knuckle and another that pulls them together at the second, so eventually we have short toes with limited movement instead of long, agile fingers.  Someone with Hallux Vagus is missing part of the first tendon, so our big toes try to grow outward, like opposable thumbs.  The second tendon, however, pulls the big toes back in, leaving a bumpy angle on the side of each foot.  The end result is I have extra, extra wide feet.

Add to that a bit of surgery I had at age twelve that stopped the big toe on my right foot from growing any longer and yeah, I got weird feet.  Twenty years ago I never would have endured the embarrassment of a foot massage.  Heck, back then I was so weirded out about my feet that I never went barefoot, not even on the beach, and I never wore sandals.  Ever since I dated a girl in medical illustration school who explained what I had (and drew my foot for that textbook) I’ve actually become almost proud of my unique leg-enders.

Anyway, when he finally started in on the actual foot massage he went in strong.  Equal parts pleasure and pain, he brought me to the brink of screaming in agony and at times left me almost drooling with unrestrained joy.

Along the way he pulled out his phone and had it translate a few questions.  It’s amazing how accurate the thing can be, and yet how it can get things so very, very wrong.  At one point he asked if they would make much money offering their foot service in Canada and I spoke into the machine, “People would pay more money for this service than you are charging, but I think you would be less busy overall.”

The translation came out something like this: “The groceries in your lung do not reciprocate with the octopus element, surely.”

As I type this I am wearing a t-shirt that I purchased in Yangshuo.  On it is the phrase, “Knowledge likes pants invisible but very important.”  After hearing the babel app translations I am no longer mystified as to how these obvious mistranslations can happen.

Speaking of poor translations, throughout the park were many signs in Chinese and English, and without exception the English translations were odd, cumbersome, and strange.  It’s the same everywhere we’ve been, and these are official government signs.  It boggles the mind to think that a country this large and powerful can’t find one fully bilingual person to proof read the official sign translations.  Seriously, how can that be?

Back to the massage, I can report that I’ve had dozens of reflexology sessions back in Canada (though at the hands of only two practitioners), and the session I experienced in China was wholly different than any I’ve had before.  As my massage was ending the fellow spoke into his babel app, which asked me if I would like “to make the foot very uncomfortable for ten yuan extra.”

“Sure!” we both said.  Turns out it meant ‘cupping’, a technique where a glass cup is heated by fire and applied to the soles of the feet, creating suction.  After about a dozen quick shwoop-pops he heated up a bamboo piece and left it suctioned onto the middle of each of my soles.  After leaving these to sit for about five minutes or so he pulled them off and looked inside.  

“Do you have full of moisture?” his phone asked me.

“Huh?” I replied.  “The machine must have gotten your question wrong, try again.”  

He did.  This time it was no question.  “Your body is full of moisture, sir,” it stated, as the man turned the bamboo cup upside down and a trickle of water (I hope) poured out.  Heather’s bamboo cups were empty.

No wonder the moon messes me up so much.  I’m an ocean.

When we walked out of there I was so, so relaxed, I just can’t explain it.  We stopped into our hotel to chill out for a while and I asked the lady at the desk if we could buy a couple of beers.  

“But the beer is free sir,” she said, pointing at the Free Beer sign.  “I’ll get you each one.”

Are you kidding?  Does the Free Beer sign really mean free beer?  After I finished mine I asked for another.  Yep, it really means free beer.  I was astounded and excited.

As dusk approached we headed out to the same market area that we had visited the night before.  Heather made a concession and suggested we try the Burger King (my favourite fast food) but I shocked her by stating that I’d rather find something local.  We aimed towards the place we ate the night before but along the way we got distracted by a small booth that was advertising Chinese hamburgers.

They were actually called Xi’an meat clip buns.  The chef took out a fatty slab of pork, minced it with a cleaver, cut in half a flat bun that looked like an English muffin but wasn’t and stuffed it with the meat, adding cilantro (for Heather but not for me, thanks.  I’m one of those), added some spicy sauce and charged us about $1.50 each.  We sat at a nearby table and devoured them.  They were as delicious as they were greasy, and they were plenty of both.

On we walked, I bought a copy of Mao’s Little Red book in the market for about $4 and a shirt in a discount store with a bit of Chinglish on it for a friend, and I stopped for a cheap deep-fried chicken burger.  Heather looked into a ton of stores and found a few gifts for family, but mostly we just wandered and soaked in the atmosphere.  

Amid the crowds strolling the pedestrian street with their purchases was a beautiful golden retriever walking along beside his master and the dog was carrying a shopping bag in his mouth.  We turned and watched them until they were out of sight; it was hilarious.  I can’t help but think that the guy initially taught his pet to do that just for times when he asked for a doggie bag in a restaurant.  That’s why I would do do it.

By 9pm I was tired and a bit bored.  We decided to call it a night and walked back to the hotel.  When we got there my feet were killing me.  I came so close to going back for another reflexology session but decided to wait until morning.  

As we entered the lobby of our hotel the proprietor jumped up, “Do you want a beer, they’re free!”  My gawd, I love this place.  I took the beer and headed to the elevator.  As the doors opened the man shouted behind me, “If you want more just come on back down and help yourself!”

Ah, to be a younger man.  There was a time when I would have left this guy questioning his policy.

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On 11/21/2017 at 9:08 AM, Velvet said:

I want to mention the bicycles.  In all of our time in Hong Kong I saw a total of two bicycles.  In mainland China I’ve seen thousands, and almost all of them are the ride-share type of bikes, which they have back home but you never see people use.  Here in China they use them like crazy.  Who knows how many different companies scatter millions of bikes around the country, blue ones, orange ones, red ones…each company with their own style and colour (and subscription rates I assume), and they are popular. 

The share cycles in China don’t have to be parked at a bike station.  Rather, all of them lock up using a rear-tire style of lock that immobilizes the bike.  To unlock one you simply scan the bike’s individual code with your phone and you are sent the combo number that unlocks that bike’s tire.  Then, when you’re finished with it you can simply lock the bike back up to itself and leave it anywhere you want.  With so many people in China it probably won’t sit where you leave it for very long.
 

Thought you might like this article about the shared bikes

https://www.economist.com/news/business/21731675-one-answer-would-be-ofo-and-mobike-merge-chinas-bicycle-sharing-giants-are-still-trying

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We woke up way too early for our scheduled breakfast, but after killing an hour we decided to go down moderately early.  We were first to arrive and the lady put on two (yes, two) fresh pots of coffee as soon as we sat down.  Before you knew it our plates were in front of us, the same as yesterday only this time the eggs were mercifully scrambled (I’m weird with egg yolks).

After we emptied our plates (and one of the coffeepots) we bee-lined it back to our massage spot, and when we found it closed I was crestfallen.  After the joy of yesterday’s reflexology session I had cursed every day I had let go by without getting a footrub, and I wasn’t about to miss any more.  

We still had at least two hours before we had to check out and get to the train station so we decided to walk down the block a bit and kill some time.  We came to an exercise park, very similar to one we had seen in Guangzhou.

The park was ringed with a whole bunch of different exercise machines, very, very similar to playground structures, except these are designed for adults, and particularly for the elderly.  Just like before, we found the devices being well used and we both gave a few of them a try.  

It really made me wonder why we don’t have the same things back home; lord knows the growing North American population could use them.  The more I thought about it the more absurd it was that playgrounds in North America are exclusively geared towards making children active.  Once you’re in your teens or above, forget it.  Join a gym, do it yourself, or grow large and unhealthy.

These parks are probably one of the reasons why I have not seen a single obese person since I’ve been here.  Not that everyone is in tip-top shape, but it sure looks like everyone is keeping on the right side of health.  The one, single time I saw a Chinese person who looked fairly overweight was when we visited Silver Cave.  As I was walking by the person in question she stepped in front of me.  

“Pardon me,” she exclaimed with a British accent.  That explains that.

It’s funny how often I forget that just because someone looks local doesn’t mean they are.  

On the way back to our hotel we found that our massage place had opened.  We sat ourselves down, we both chose a sixty-minute treatment and blissed out for the next hour.  

We were back at the hotel checking out right on time at noon.  They called us a cab to the north train station, and a half-hour ride later we paid the cabbie the $5 fare (things can be so cheap here) and went in.  

We perused the food court and passed on the chicken/French fry place in favour of some cheap, delicious fried noodles.  I bought a tube of Pringle-ish chips and a couple of beers for the four-hour high-speed journey and we waited for the train.  I was delighted to find that our seats were actually in a sleeper car but disappointed that we were sharing our booth with four other people and a diaper-wearing babbler.  

At 1:45 on the button the train pulled out.  Man, does the rail system run on time around here.

We were headed for Macau, a Portuguese territory (or some such thing - it’s pretty hard to figure out) that is adjacent to Hong Kong (by water) and fairly well known as a gambling mecca.  The train doesn’t go directly to Macau.  As a matter of fact, the nearest we could gather was that the train would take us pretty close and free busses would be waiting to take us the rest of the way.

As unlikely as it sounds, I figured a city trying to draw in gamblers would make it as easy as possible for people to get there, so we crossed our fingers, stared out the window, and settled in for the speedy journey.  And I was half right.

When we arrived at the train depot we almost immediately saw a Wynn’s Resort booth that was manned by several ladies.  That boded well; all we had to do was to find a similar booth dedicated to the Countdown Hotel, or the Hard Rock (as the Countdown was recently known as), or even City Of Dreams, which we assumed was a complex that housed our hotel.  I asked one of the ladies.

“City Of Dreams,” she repeated.  “Go downstairs, turn right and walk maybe five minutes.

“You’ll see it,” she lied.

I had read somewhere along the way that you had to walk across a bridge or something and free busses would then take one to Macau.  This was somewhat verified by the almost-English speaking lady that had helped us with our train tickets in Guilin, but we really didn’t have much of a clue what we were doing.  

We made our way downstairs and turned right.  Walking through crowds and crowds of people we saw plenty of busses but nothing that really gave us much of a clue.  We got to what I can only describe as the end, beyond which was a terminal of some sort that had security officers and metal detectors at the entrance.  We turned around and started walking back and ultimately decided to descend down an escalator into what was clearly a shopping centre.  Down there was found a sign for Macau, the first we had seen, though it was pointing us back upstairs.  As we were about to reboard the escalator I saw a guy sitting in a small Apple booth looking at his iPhone.  I figured working for Apple meant either he would speak a bit of English or he would at least have a translation device so I asked him our one-word question.

“Macau?”

He indeed directed us back up the stairs, further indicating that we should enter the secure area.  We did and soon found ourselves in an immigration/customs area.  I was still not convinced we were in the right place but we went through immigration nice and easy and soon found ourselves at a row of busses, each with signs advertising different casino resorts.  And there among them was City Of Dreams - Crowne/Countdown/Hyatt.

Whew!  That was a bit tricky.  It’s hard to believe they had no signage outside the customs terminal whatsoever.

We lined up, soon enough we got on a bus (free of charge) and the first stop dropped us at the front door(ish) of our hotel.  Whew!  That was easy.

Here’s what I didn’t know: our train dropped us off at a border town - Macau was literally right there.  I thought we had to take a bus for thirty miles or something, but nope.

On our bus ride in we could see a ton of brightly lit casinos in the distance, and we soon crossed a long bridge and drove far away from them.  I was crestfallen, as I really wanted to be staying in the thick of things.  Due to heavy traffic we were on the bus for about a half-hour, and all we could see outside of our window was dark, towering office towers, the glitz and faux glamour long since having faded over our horizon.

Comically, I realized later that had we been sitting on the other side of the bus we would have seen an even glitzier, even fauxer casino area loom, with the Venetian, the Parisian, MGM and many other big name casinos growing as we neared.

It was around 6pm when we arrived at the Countdown.  I was pretty impressed with the twin Lamborghinis that sat inside the front door.  As we checked in I became even more impressed with the clever countdown clock in the main lobby.  Clocking in at 5000+ hours to go (until their new casino would be opening in a different location), the timepiece amounted to six frosted pieces of glass, behind which were silhouettes of men with paint rollers and cleaning rags.  With each minute that ticked away, the man behind the appropriate window would wipe away the previous number and paint the new time on his pane of glass.

5437:42

Soon the last fellow started erasing his “2” and painted in it’s place a “1”.  A minute later he started erasing again, this time painting a “0” while the fellow in the next window erased his “4” and replaced it with a “3”.  Most amusing of all was how bored the first guy seemed to be.  You could see him texting, pacing around, and occasionally sitting down on a stool, having almost five hundred hours to wait until he would have something to do.

Of course there weren’t really people back there; it was video, but I sure liked it.  The only clock I’ve seen that even compared was one I saw years ago in the airport in Seoul that was made up of hundreds of tiny waterfalls.

We checked in and rode the elevator to the 22nd floor.  As soon as we entered our room I flung back the curtains and was overjoyed to see what basically looked like Las Vegas directly outside.  Pools, big fancy waterfalls, lights, crazy, unique architecture.  I was ecstatic.

“I’m going to go find us a bottle of whisky,” I said to Heather.  

“Don’t get lost or stolen,” she called out as she went in to the bathroom to take a shower.  

I went down to the concierge and asked where I could find my quarry and I was surprised that he sent me to a whole other casino.  “On the third floor of the Venetian,” he told me, “You’ll find a Watson’s.  There you can buy wine and liquor.”

The Venetian was basically next door.  I walked there at quite a clip, excitement growing with every quick step.  I’m a sucker for the pretension and glamorous facade that is offered in gambling meccas and I was primed to get my boogie on.

In less than five minutes I was inside the Venetian and after about five more I found the Watson’s.  “We don’t have whiskey or wine here sir,” I was told.  “Only water.”

What?!?!  Arrrgh.  

“Where can I buy whiskey?” I asked with a forced smile.  “I don’t know,” she told me.

I stalked through the third floor until I found a variety-type store amongst the many luxury outlets with names like Rolex, Prada, and Chanel.  “We don’t sell alcohol here, sir.  Maybe you should try Watson’s?”

Aaarrrrghhhh!

“Or if you prefer, you could visit our duty-free store on the first floor.  I’m sure you’ll find what you are looking for there.”

Was I running by this time?  Probably.  And there, on the first floor was indeed a duty-free store.  The Jack Daniels was prohibitively expensive so I grabbed a litre of Canadian Club for only 80MOP (Macau currency is basically locked to the Hong Kong dollar, which is accepted everywhere.  The bottle cost about $15).

That could certainly have been much easier than it was.

I asked the very friendly staff at the duty-free where I might buy some Coca-Cola and was pointed to a nearby booth.  I noticed the Cokes there cost 22 each, almost $4.50 for a small bottle so I balked and raced back upstairs to the Watson’s.

It wasn’t until I hit the threshold of the drugstore that I remembered what the lady there had told me ten minutes before: “We only have water.”  I quickly looked around and seeing she was right I power-walked to the variety store that had told me about the duty-free; I had seen Cokes in the fridge there.  

I grabbed two cans and took them to the cash.  She rang them up, priced at 30MOP each.  “Are you kidding me?!?!” I actually said out loud, clearly exasperated.  “No, I can’t pay $6 for a can of Coke,” I said, tearing out of there.  

At this point I had probably been gone a half-hour or more - Heather probably thought I had sat down for a little blackjack or something and was likely pacing the floor up in our room.  I ran towards the nearest exit, hoping against hope that I’d find some reasonably-priced mix along the way.  I didn’t.

As I passed the concierge in my hotel lobby I stopped long enough to get directions to the resort’s variety store in the basement though I thought it prudent to stop into the room first.

I opened the door out of breath and somewhat sweaty.  “Hi,” Heather called out cheerily from the bathroom.  “How did it go?”

Whew!

I told her exactly how it went and left to buy the Cokes, and lo, in the variety store right there in the basement of our casino what did I find but bottles and bottles of wine and hard liquor (though admittedly not any types that I would have preferred).  On my way back upstairs I did something I don’t do too often: I went back to that snivelly, know-nothing poor excuse for a concierge and told him that Watson’s did not sell any liquor at all, that there was a well stocked duty-free store in the Venetian, and that their own variety store sold liquor, counting off the man’s insufficiencies as I went on the fingers of my right hand.  

“Oh,” he said lamely.  “Sorry.”

I got back to the room in a bit of a mood, having spent close to an hour doing what should have taken no time at all, but it was nothing a few too many drinks couldn’t cure.  Heather joined me almost one-for-one, and once we got sufficiently loose (for the first time on this trip) we headed out to find some food.
 
Fortunately I now knew my way around the Venetian so I led her over to the food court on the third floor.  Unfortunately the restaurant kiosks were shutting down so we ended up catching McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries.  After we ate there wasn’t much left to do with the night so I walked Heather back to our room and headed downstairs for a bit of gambling.  

I had heard that baccarat was popular here but I wasn’t expecting it to be the only game in town.  Okay, that’s not true, but at the Countdown casino it was almost true.  I scoured the floor and was amazed to find they only offered two games, baccarat and another Asian game using a pair of dice hidden in a covered glass dome.  No blackjack, no poker, no roulette.  The casino floor isn’t the most ideal place to learn the ins and outs of a new game, especially a casino floor where English is a second language at best, so I booked it over to the Venetian again.  

Believe it or not, Macau is the gambling capitol of the world, raking in five times as much revenue as Las Vegas.  And I can see why; the table minimums are quite significant.  The lowest blackjack table I could find had a table minimum of 300MOP, more than $50CAN.  Geez.  I wanted to gamble a bit but I couldn’t risk that kind of cash.

I found a roulette table and dug in.  My first spin won me about $250 and I really wish I had left the casino right then.  I actually considered it, but my tired mind was having difficulty doing the multiple exchanges needed to count my chip stack.  I had dropped 300MOP, been given a handful of chips, won a stack more and busied myself trying to determine how many MOP I had and how much that translated to in CAN.  By the time I figured it all out the answer to both queries was zero.

That’s not how it was supposed to go.

I was almost to the door when I thought, “to heck with it, get back in there and win your money back,” so I marched right back to the table and lost another 500MOP.  In the end I lost about $250CAN and didn’t really have any fun at all.  If there were free drinks to be had I never saw them, nobody around my table spoke any English, and nobody really seemed to be having much fun.  It was a heads-down-and-gambling kind of crowd.

Incidentally, though I rarely play roulette I often do quite well, with two exceptions: this night and a night playing on the ferry between Sweden and Finland, and in both of those cases the wheel was European-style.  That is, instead of having a spot for both “0” and “00” it only had the “0”.  Of course with only thirty-seven spots available instead of thirty-eight my odds are better, but both times I found the little ball inexplicably landing in the slot next to my big bet, which convinces me that if another spot had been added to the game my numbers would have kept coming up like they tend to do in North America.  

I mean, there were three instances where I put $20CAN on a number and all three times the ball landed next door to my selection.  Any one of those hits would have netted me a $700 payout.  The dude next to me kept hitting them though, which somehow didn’t make me feel any better about it.

But that’s gambling.

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54 minutes ago, Velvet said:

I grabbed two cans and took them to the cash.  She rang them up, priced at 30MOP each.  “Are you kidding me?!?!” I actually said out loud, clearly exasperated.  “No, I can’t pay $6 for a can of Coke,” I said, tearing out of there.  

I was almost to the door when I thought, “to heck with it, get back in there and win your money back,” so I marched right back to the table and lost another 500MOP. 

 :lol: ... :rolleyes:

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110717

It was a lovely wakeup on the 22nd floor, high above the Macau skyline.  We took it easy getting started and when we did we tried our best to see what the almost-country had to offer besides casinos.  Our map told us that there was a small traditional neighbourhood just behind the Venetian so we set out on foot to find it.

The farther we got, the more unlikely it seemed that there could actually be anything traditional in the shadows of the countless giant resort towers that rose from the reclaimed swamp area, but a few twists and turns and we found it, a small grid of tourist shops and restaurants nestled in the casino shade.  

Though it was still fairly early - not yet noon - I was shocked to find so few people about.  I mean, for the first hour of meandering we were alone almost everywhere we went.  The reason I found this so surprising was because I had read that with almost 700,000 people in a thirty square kilometre area Macau is considered the most densely packed area in the world.  

It sure didn’t look like there was 20,000+ people per square kilometre.  It looked more like there was a dozen or less.

We did some trinket shopping and found a nice place for lunch.  I hit a home run with my turmeric chicken and soup, Heather did okay with her open-faced beef sandwich and she followed that up with an egg tart from a street vendor, a toasty treat that is extremely common ‘round here.  We digested while we wandered before heading back to the hotel to drop off our purchases and hop the free shuttle to the centre of Macau for more sightseeing.

When we got off the bus next to the Emperor Hotel I finally believed the hype about this being the most densely populated area on the planet.  Every street, sidewalk, and alley was packed with tourists and locals alike, the tourists mostly looking for the ruins of the St. Paul’s Church while the locals were mostly looking for the tourists.  Both had easy tasks.  We stopped into a few shops along the way and soon found the remains of Asia’s greatest Catholic Church.

Built in 1602, the only thing that remains of the  impressive structure following a fire in the mid-1800’s is the grand facade, a tall, thin movie set-looking church front with no church attached.  The irony of the ornate, grandiose Catholic Church standing bare as the facade that it is was not lost on me whatsoever, but I digress.

We wandered further afield, beyond the main tourist areas and stopped into a few more shops.  Eventually we found ourselves back at the Emperor Hotel where we discovered a variety store across the street.  We almost emptied their shelves, buying water, beers, ginger beer, canned iced coffee, and several Coca Colas at the astounding bargain of just 8MOP each.  If I ended up with extra Cokes I could easily hawk them outside the casino store back at the Venitian.

We slugged back a beer or two as the bus whisked us past a thousand incredible pieces of stunning architecture on our way back to our hotel complex in Cotai.  At the hotel we caught the pool just before it closed for the night, using the swimsuits we had brought along for the first time this trip.  The pool attendant was super.  He was really friendly and he escorted us to the deck chairs of our choice where he carefully placed our fluffy towels and bid us a good time.  We had the entire pool area to ourselves (okay, there was one other person in the hot tub when we got in, but we scared him off in no time) and enjoyed it for about a half-hour or more.  

Afterwards we stopped into our room for a brief but awesome rest before heading back to the good old Venetian for dinner in the food court.  This time we caught the kiosks just before they closed and we each got fried noodles.  Mine were super-delicious, Heather’s a bit less so, just like lunch.

Heather wasn’t interested in gambling (she rarely is) and neither was I really, so after dinner we called it a night.  I tried to finish off my bottle of rye while staring out the window like it was a huge fish tank and almost succeeded.
 

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110817

I awoke around 8am and was at the Starbucks downstairs shortly after they opened at 8:30.  It’s amazing how flippantly I can drop $8 on a pair of coffees, but under the right circumstances I can do it pretty easily.  Heather and I took our time getting up and about, but with a late checkout scheduled for noon we had enough time to go back to the food court for more fried noodles first.  

On our final stroll through the casino after lunch I decided to try for a hail Mary, dropping a final 100MOP on the roulette wheel.  Of course the thing about hail Mary’s is that they rarely convert.  I did not convert.  Heather surprised me by eyeing the slot machines.  She stopped at one that featured a lion and in honour of our much-missed kitty cat back home she fed a twenty MOP bill into the machine and gave it a twirl.

And lo, there came five lions marching towards us on the screen as her credits clicked up and up.  In the end she won $20CAN on the one spin and clever girl that she is, we bee-lined it to the cashier to cash out.

When we checked out of the hotel I was surprised to hear the clerk apologize for the trouble I had encountered trying to find a bottle of liquor on our first night.  At the time I considered the fact the the clerk had been alerted to my earlier complaint pretty outstanding attention to detail but now that I think about it, in addition to giving the concierge in question a bit of a dressing down I also spoke to a different concierge about it the next day, and for the first time in my life I filled out the comment card that had been in our room when we checked in.  Word was bound to get around.

We took the free shuttle to the Taipa ferry terminal (we took a lot of free shuttles) and bought our tickets back to Hong Kong.  Quick as you like we were on board jetting towards that world’s most popular tourist destination, and we were on our way there fast.  I was really impressed with the speed of the ferry, especially because we had something like forty kilometres to travel to get there.

Get there we did, and after a five minute walk dragging our luggage around we found our last hotel of this trip, a Travelodge on Hollywood Road.  After a short rest we lit out for a final romp through Hong Kong, starting at the Cat Street pedestrian market (with no cats in sight) where the used curio shops held our attention for a solid two hours.  Then we stopped into a nearby temple for a quick lookaround.  The place was completely overrun with smoke from thousands of incense sticks and hundreds of large incense coils that hung from every inch of the ceiling.  

We went to the airport express train depot to book our tickets for the morning but were told we could only buy them on the day of travel.  We took the opportunity to measure how long it would take to walk between the terminal and our hotel and discovered it was a forty minute journey.  With an 8:30am flight we pre-decided to take a cab to the airport express train in the morning and then we walked back through town to the Star Ferry.

We sipped beers as we crossed the bay to Kowloon and sipped even more as we wandered the night market.  This excursion was my idea; the last time we were here I had seen some bootleg Lego (called Lele) and wanted to buy a Star Wart (yes, Star Wart) Millennium Falcon for Heather’s nephew.  I found three vendors with the goods I wanted.  Some cursory bargaining unveiled the most entertaining haggler and after ten minutes of back and forth I walked out of there with the Lele tucked under my arm for the somewhat reasonable price (I guess) of 190HKD.  

Our final stop of the night was something I had been eyeing (and all but insisting on) for the last month or so: Ozone, the highest bar in the world.  Sitting atop the Ritz-Carleton in Kowloon, the high-end (read: overly pricey) nightclub is on the 118th floor of what must be the tallest building in Hong Kong.  We could see the building from everywhere (of course) and made the long trek there from the night market by foot, arriving tired and in much need of an overpriced drink.

Never mind that we were pulling on dollar-beers purchased from 7-11’s along the way (which are quite literally on every block) and really didn’t need any more drinks.  Also never mind that now that it came down to it I wasn’t completely sold on hitting the place up, but when Heather pointed out that we might as well check it out while we’re here I readily agreed.

Ozone has a funny dress code: men have to be wearing pants after dark.  On the face of it that seems like a pretty valid restriction but oh yeah, shorts.  The best part is if you aren’t wearing long pants they will loan you a pair.  I almost wished I needed a pair but no, I was wearing jeans.

The building is so big it couldn’t all be a hotel and it wasn’t; the Ritz-Carleton started on floor number 103 and rose up from there.  When we approached the elevators to go up the tower a Ritz-y employee asked if we could be helped.

“Yes,” we replied.  “We’d like to go up to Ozone for a drink.”  The lady literally looked us up and down, head-to-toe and somehow we passed muster and she escorted us to the elevator.  Heather suggested she was merely checking to see if I was wearing pants but I doubt it; she was debating whether we were Beverly hillbillies or just hillbillies.  Oh, how I wish I had just left one of my Lamborghini’s with the valet.

We chuckled about her as the elevator rose to 103, the only stop offered on the lift.  There we were escorted to another elevator that whisked us straight up to the bar.

The place is seriously upscale, and the server that led us outside to the patio was only slightly more subtle in her scrutiny of us than her counterpart had been downstairs.  “Are you staying at our hotel?” she asked.  “Listen lady, I’m wearing pants, isn’t that enough? I thought, though I merely answered, “No.”

The place was really busy and you couldn’t find a waiter with a geiger counter.  I approached the bar and ordered a cocktail for Heather and a bottle of Goose Island IPA for myself.  It came to about $60CAN for the pair of drinks.  Somehow the barkeep detected that I didn’t want to run a tab.

We sat by the window and swooned over the view, which was amazing despite the misting rain.  There wasn’t a structure in sight that came even close to our height.  The buildings that towered over us we had walked to the Ritz-Carleton had seemed enormous; now they were little tiny dots below us.  It was really astounding.  We were on the top floor with the open sky over our heads and we nursed our drinks (though not too long) and spent most of our time reminiscing about our soon-to-end vacation and laughing about the Richie Richersons all around us.

I think it really adds to the mental picture to remember that I still had that large, 1500+ piece Star Wart Millennium Falcon virtually tucked under my arm while people all around were ordering $2,000 bottles of wine and leaving them half full (half empty?) on the tables.  I even ducked into the toilet so I could stiff someone else out of a tip (official attendant or not, I make it a habit to never give money to a man I don’t know in a public washroom).  It was all really fun and we got out of there just after midnight.

Though the distance from the Ritz-Carleton to the dock where we could catch the Star Ferry back to our hotel looked minuscule from our perch up in Ozone, it occurred to us that everything looked minuscule from up there, so we opted to take the metro.  On our way down the tower we stopped at the hotel lobby on the 103rd floor and poked around a little (let them try and kick us out - we were leaving anyway).  There were two restaurants there, both very fancy-schmancy and both with pretty fine views of their own.  The subway station underneath the building proved quite convenient; we rode the train underneath the bay, switched lines and in no time we were back at our hotel.  

We stopped at the desk to request a wakeup call for 5am (gulp!) and settled in for about two hundred minutes of shuteye.

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