Safety first in China|
Sometimes our first stop in a country leaves us feeling a little unenthusiastic - perhaps through circumstances of illness, tiredness, culture shock, the necessity of landing in a big city or some combination of the above.
Morocco, Vietnam and India are all examples of such places where we had this experience, fortunately in all of these cases this passed and these now rate amongst our favourite countries.
Similarly, the start of our travels in China has not been without its challenges, although in this case it has less to do with the place itself, and more to do with some unfortunate weather that we have encountered.
Our stay to the area around Guilin has unluckily coincided with a cold snap (apparently last week was warm and it's going to get better just around the time that we leave), with temperatures ranging from the mid-teens (degC) down to single digits. Brrrr!
Guilin itself is a pleasant city, even notwithstanding the fact that we just arrived from India it feels very modern and clean. It's been 11 years since I was last in China so there's probably been a lot of change since then, or perhaps Guilin has always been fairly clean and shiny for a Chinese city.
The city is set among a countryside of limestone karsts, with numerous river and lake settings. We've ascended a few peaks in the area for great views and also cycled out through some nearby farmland.
I've been relishing the opportunity to speak Chinese again, although I'm in equal parts disturbed at how much I've forgotton and impressed at how much I remember.
Various bits of vocabulary are slowly coming back to me, and it's nice to be able to give a roughly intelligble answer when someone speaks to me in the local language, even if I am still getting my 4's and 10's mixed up a little (they have similar pronounciation).
But back to the weather, which unfortunately has impacted our sightseeing a little. We wanted to see some nearby rice terraces that are meant to be a fantastic sight.
The plan was to bus to a village about 3 hours from Guilin, spend the night there and then hike the following day amongst the rice terraces, then bus back to Guilin.
However, about an hour into our bus ride we became acutely aware of 2 factors: 1) the increasing fog as we headed further up and into the hills, and
2) our growing discomfort with regards to our safety, as the road was damp and the driver of our slightly old and rattley bus seemed rather more reckless than we'd have liked him to be.
Now, we've seen some crazy driving other countries, but we've always had good drivers and never actually felt that our vehicle was any more liable to crash than others.
But this time, given current road conditions and the fact that visibility at our destination as likely to be poor anyway, and having already passed one nasty-looking accident, we decided that we'd be better off on the road heading back to Guilin.
A quick conversation with the bus conductor confirmed that this was perfectly OK - we could hail a bus in the opposite direction back to Guilin, they would come every 15 minutes and would have space for us. So the bus pulled over, and off we hopped.
We took a little time to appreciate our surroundings, we had been dropped off at an almost deserted holiday and white-water rafting resort, and despite the mist the hills and river below were still quite pretty and atmospheric.
We found some houses (but no-one around), ate our basic packed lunch and then proceeded to try to flag a bus down.
To cut a long story short, we ended up waiting for about 1.5 hours during which time we tried to hail about 20 buses, none of which stopped for us - for a whole lot of possible reasons, but we never did quite find out the key to it.
We also tried hailing a couple of taxis, which were inevitably carrying passengers and even the occasional private car, but all to no avail.
During this time we met a friendly woman running a road pit stop in the opposite direction who 1) confirmed that hailing a bus from the roadside was a reasonable thing to do
2) confirmed that our bus-hailing hand signal was appropriate 3) told us that there had been a multi-car collision further up the road from where we were (away from Guilin)
and 4) tried to contact someone for us to organise a hire car to come and return us to Guilin (an arrangement which unfortunately didn't come through).
Although in the end she wasn't necessarily able to definitively help us, it was nice that she validated our actions and didn't think they were unreasonable.
"Our" spot by the road
Finally we managed to hail an auto-rickshaw, whose driver said he could take us to a point further down the road towards Guilin where we might have more luck getting a bus or some other vehicle.
Perched on small wooden stools loose in the back of the auto-rickshaw, we did question the wisdom of taking this ride from a safety perspective, but by this stage it was getting late in the day and we were getting a little desperate and cold, and were happy to be getting a little closer back towards Guilin.
Fortunately all went okay, and 10 minutes later the driver helped us to hail a bus, which - FINALLY! - stopped for us.
My first thought on boarding the bus was perhaps we weren't any better off than we had been earlier in the day.
It was what could be termed a "classic Chinese bus experience", there were guys smoking on the bus and various boxes and other cargo piled up,
and at first it looked as if we'd have to sit on plastic stools in the middle of the aisle.
But hey, it was transport to our desired destination and fortunately some spots freed up on an anchored wooden box seat for us.
And as the bus filled up and the people packed in we were happy to have seats at all.
The bus also trundled along at a reasonable pace, and we felt far less likely to be hurtling into the path on an oncoming truck than we had earlier in the day.
We arrived back at our Guilin hotel cold, tired and hungry but overall relieved and most importantly, safe.
Happily they had a room available for us so we checked in again just in time for dinner.
So, on the whole it was rather a waste of a day, but we did take away a few key lessons:
How to flag down a Chinese bus
Where possible, it probably doesn't hurt to check out the vehicle prior to any bus trips we take in the future
A deeper appreciation and respect for how dangerous Chinese roads can be
The next day we caught a bus to Yangshuo, about an hour away.
Happy to report that the journey was uneventful, with good road conditions and driver.
Yangshuo is also surrounded by even more plentiful limestone karsts, and despite the cold we've spent an enjoyable couple of days so far exploring the countryside with some stunning scenery.
We still have a couple more days here, with lots more to tell and write about - but that will have to wait until another post!
Day 175 - 4 March 2010|
A day in Mumbai: Happy Holi
We have arrived in China without too many hassles and are currently in Guilin.
We're in a little bit of cold shock, with a 15-20 degree Celsius drop in temperature (plus wind factor), but on the whole Guilin is surprisingly modern, clean and orderly, even notwithstanding the fact that we've just come from India.
But before we get too far into China, I want to quickly recap our final day in India.
Mumbai wasn't originally in our travel plans, but we decided to stop there for a day since we had to fly through there to get to China.
And as with so many of our originally unplanned destinations, it turned out to be a great stop.
Compared to the other places we'd travelled in India (which was basically Delhi and the state of Rajasthan), Mumbai was more ordered and slightly less dirty, the only animals we saw wandering the streets were stray dogs.
Overall it felt very cosmopolitan and modern, with wide boulevards, swanky shopping centers and a long stretch of beach front promenade.
It seemed that the standard of living for the average Indian was higher than the other places we'd been, people were generally dressed better and seemed happier.
This is probably not surprising, since Mumbai is the financial centre of India, not to mention the capital of Bollywood.
We also saw the impact of the British presence (Mumbai used to be the British capital of India) in the stately colonial buildings that graced the streets.
But we were still very much in India - we definitely saw some novel sights and in keeping with our previous blog themes, plenty of contrast and colour.
Our day in Mumbai coincided with the Holi festival, which celebrates the start of Spring.
It's also a public holiday, so this had some impacts on our sightseeing.
On one hand, some sights that we would have normally spent more time at were closed or not operational.
On the other hand, traffic was fantastically quiet and we saw many of the festivities in progress.
Holi is celebrated by people throwing coloured powder and water at each other, and wandering around town we saw coloured people everywhere.
There were groups of guys dancing in the streets to music and we were soon exchanging greetings with people "Happy Holi!"
We saw the occasional dog spattered with bits of colour and at one point Michael was daubed with a little colour himself.
Towards the end of the day, we happened by a large pool of water filled with people washing off and cleaning up.
We think the pool is intended for pilgrims to bathe in, but on this occasion it was taking on a definite shade of pink amongst the ducks and seagulls as more and more people washed their colours off.
At one point we saw some officials clearing the pool of washers, but an hour or so later, after they had left, it was full of people again.
On the evening of our arrival, we wandered out to Chowpatty Beach, which was full of people just milling around, chilling out and enjoying the dusk.
A group of amusement rides caught our attention when we realised that they were all manually human-powered.
Especially fascinating was a ferris wheel-like ride from which the operators would acrobatically swing down to increase its momentum and speed.
Incredible to watch but kind of dangerous for them too!
We also saw a little of the less flashy side of Mumbai, at one point we wandered through a more slum-my area, with small houses and buildings built around tiny narrow lanes (and on this day, all filled with pink and green colour, of course).
Out the other end we came to the rocky coast with boys playing cricket on a pebbly beach and people scattered around on the rocks.
In stark contrast to the housing we had just come through, we could see shiny new high-rise buildings under contruction in the background.
We were also warned off from certain areas by some locals as areas for Ladies' and Gents' business, which made us look carefully at where we were stepping.
I engaged in some conversation with a group of girls - they were very friendly, and found the association of my husband's name to Michael Jackson hilarious.
Wandering back through the slums we encountered many people who were clearly interested but unfazed by the sight of two foreigners wandering through their local neighbourhood:
Day 171 - 28 February 2010|
Insights into India: colours and contrasts
When we first started our travels in India, things were interesting enough and there were lots of novel sights, but we didn't necessarily feel ultra-excited about the place.
But as our travels have progressed and as we have moved further away from Delhi, we have felt increasingly engaged and the experiences and sights have been richly rewarding.
Not sure whether this is because things are actually more interesting or whether we're just "gel-ling" with the country more with time.
India is such a colourful place - both figuratively and literally.
By now we're almost accustomed to seeing cows, goats, pigs, camels, monkeys and even the occasional elephant in the streets.
And yes, the streets are pretty dirty and strewn with rubbish (there would probably be a lot more rubbish if the animals didn't eat a lot of the waste) and the traffic is chaotic.
But on the other hand, there is so much vibrantly coloured clothing, especially in Rajasthan, the state where we've been travelling.
It's not at all unusual to see a motorbike whizz past with a woman wearing a bright pink, red, turquoise or orange sari. Or similar colours walking down a street carrying a pot or load of firewood on their heads, herding donkeys or goats, or in construction sites.
And in the markets and shops there are piles of material, saris, bangles, spices, food and all sorts of other things on offer.
Often the houses themselves are painted blue too, adding to the kaleidoscope.
India is also a country of contrasts. As Michael has previously blogged, the cleanliness and serenity of the monuments are brought into sharp relief against the chaos of the streets.
There also seems to be some awareness of environmental concerns - sometimes we see signs about "keeping the place clean", or "say no to plastic", but again this is definitely not borne out in the streets!
And of course, while there is a reasonable level of development - highways, technology and preparations for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, there's also a lot of poverty and slum residences in the streets
We've also had an opportunity to get some glimpses of life in rural India.
Visiting a village area near Jodhpur, we saw some traditional crafts (pottery and weaving) and an opium ceremony (no we didn't participate).
Once again in the way of contrasts, despite basic housing, the residents have electricity, mobile phones and satellite dishes - it was odd to stand in a small clay hut with thatched roof and see an electricity cable running in to a power board with a mobile phone charger hanging off!
Apparently the government has encouraged these developments so that the villagers can benefit from modern conveniences and technology but still maintain their traditional lifestyle.
A few days later we travelled to Udaipur by car, stopping off at an impressive temple and an even more impressive fort.
During the drive we passed plenty of homes, farmland and villagers out and about.
One of the most interesting things we saw were ox-driven water wheels in use - we saw these in museums in Morocco!
The fort itself was also magnificent - positioned on a hill at over 1000 metres elevation with 36km of walls and containing 360 temples, the promise of spectacular views did not disappoint.
While wandering around we also came across a dam that is being rebuilt. The women at the worksite invited me over, so I sat with them for about 5-10 minutes during their break.
Although they were working and carrying heavy materials around a contstruction site, underneath their scarves and wraps they still wore lots of necklaces and jewellery.
They didn't speak any English and I can't speak Hindi so there were a lot of smiles and gesturing. They were interested in my sunglasses and were greatly amused to try them on, and then were also making some comments related to my hair and something about the dust.
I realised afterwards that they were asking whether I shampoo it regularly, I guess because it looked pretty clean and shiny to them. All in all, it was a lovely encounter.
The past couple of days in Udaipur have brought even more colourful sights and the opportunity to see village life.
Yesterday we went for a horse ride which took us through another rural village. There were children everywhere, all calling out "Namaste" (Hello) to us.
The living there seemed basic but not necessarily impoverished - there were electricity cables, some newer brick houses and schools.
In fact, it seemed that many of children seemed to practising their textbook English on us ("How are you?" "What is your name?" "I am fine").
In the evening we saw a show of traditional Rajasthani dance and music, highlights of which included women dancing with pots of fire on their heads, a guy holding hot coals between his teeth, and a woman dancing with no less than 10 pots stacked on top of her head.
Truly impressive stuff - probably the best "traditional show" that we've seen in all of our travels so far (and it only cost us a little over US$1 each!)
Then finally, just before we left Udaipur this morning, we dropped by a local market to see the preparations for a Hindu festival called Holi, which takes place tomorrow.
Holi marks the start of Spring and celebrations take place by everyone throwing coloured dye and coloured water at everyone one else on the streets. In short, it sounds much like a massive Year 12 muck-up day.
The market was a buzzing hive of activity with brightly coloured powders and water pistols for sale everywhere. Many of the kids around town have already been practising their water pistol skills for a few days (fortunately only with plain water!)
We flew out to Mumbai this afternoon so we won't be in Udaipur for the actual festival we have mixed feelings about this.
On one hand we're sorry to miss what will be amazing festivities. On the other hand we've heard that it's pretty full on and anybody and everybody is fair game, so we've escaped before the mayhem where we'd likely be multicoloured ourselves for a few days afterwards.