What can we really say about The Great Wall? It was as incredibly breathtaking as we had imagined; we couldn’t have dreamt it to be any better. The part that we visited, between Jinshanling and Simatai, is one of the furthest from Beijing, meaning that it is undisturbed by the masses of tourists that flock to the closer sections, and it also retains its authenticity since it has not yet been fully restored. Here are a few photos of our visit; we took hundreds and will spare you by only sharing a few of our favorites.
Archive for May, 2012
Before diving into Shanghai itself, we must talk about how we got there. There are many ways to get from place to place in China; for the budget backpacker, overnight trains are the best option. We opted for “hard-sleeper” beds, which, as the name would suggest, are quite firm and stacked three-high in a car without doors or curtains; basically a moving bunk room with 70+ beds. While it’s not the most private way to travel, it is actually quite fun! Small tables and folding chairs line the corridor, making for a very communal feel. All of the train cars are equipped with steaming hot water taps, and we learned early on that dried noodle bowls are the meal of choice for long train rides. Add a deck of cards, a good book and a flask of whiskey to the mix, and you’re set with all you need to make the most of the 23 hour, 950 mile journey.
We spent our first day in Shanghai visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum. It has to be one of the most oddly located museums in the world. With the address and Chinese name in hand, we arrived at what we thought was the entrance. At first, we weren’t certain we had found the right place as it was just a big apartment complex. The security guard handed us a business card that pointed us around the corner and down a floor to the basement of building #3.
The museum houses a very extensive collection of original Chinese Communist Party propaganda posters. Almost all of these posters were destroyed following Mao’s death, so a collection this size is quite remarkable. The dates of the posters range form 1930-1979; the imagery and verbiage used on the posters are both powerful and thought-provoking. We highly recommend visiting this museum on your next stop in Shanghai.
Possibly Shanghai’s most well know attraction, The Bund, is a historic part of city with predominantly European architecture. It was home to many important residents, businesses, and government offices during the British rule of the city. Today the area is a meeting ground of old and new. Sitting just across the Huangpu River from The Bund are countless ultra-modern skyscrapers that fill Shanghai with neon lights each evening. For us, the view was somewhat reminiscent of Hong Kong, but let there be no mistake about it, Shanghai is mainland China through and through, not an SAR.
Another remnant of Shanghai’s colonial past is the neighborhood known as The French Concession. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, well-kept mansions and designer fashion stores transport you far from the chaos of the city center, and can almost convince you that you are in Europe not Asia. We strolled through the area one afternoon and stumbled upon something we had been missing since we left home, a micro-brewery. Yes! Any cold beer goes down easily on a hot, humid day, but the beer in China leaves a lot to be desired. Being from Portland and Denver (the micro-brew hubs of America) we require a good craft beer from time to time; Boxing Cat Brewery in the French Concession fit the bill.
Each region in China boasts its own local flavor. In Shanghai, the regional specialty is dumplings. Every restaurant and street cart sells their own version. We came to love the dumpling vendor on the corner next to our hostel, and stopped by every morning for breakfast. We never quite figured it out, but each day we paid a different price for the same dumplings. It seems that China is one of those places where you can decide what you’re going to pay for a product; hand the person your money with confidence and they will likely accept it with a smile.
Beyond dumplings, we enjoyed many other delicious treats from vendors on the street in Shanghai. Some of our favorites were two well know dishes in the western world, fried noodles (chow mein) and fried rice (chow fahn) prepared on a makeshift, propane-powered stove top that was attached to a bicycle. Ready in less than two minutes, these dishes were phenomenal late-night snacks.
Last but not least, KTV. We had heard a lot about it since arriving in China, and were excited to partake in this beloved Chinese pastime. One Friday night in Shanghai we met up with a friend of a friend to see what KTV was all about. Essentially, it is karaoke, but is much different than the karaoke bars found in the US. Forget the dive bar with a large screen where you sing in front of a crowd of strangers. Now, picture walking into the lobby of a high-rise, heading up the elevator, exiting into a fancy corridor of numbered rooms. Behind each door: couches, a flat-screen TV, song selection computer, microphones, bottles of liquor, snacks, dice games and, most importantly, a good group of friends. We stayed at KTV with our new Chinese friends until 4am, and it was truly a night to remember.
With a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, China can be a tough place in which to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Even when traveling to “small towns” you often find yourself in the midst of millions. In need of some peace and quiet, we headed towards the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng County.
The Longji rice growing region is home to several villages speckled throughout the mountains. The most popular village in the area is Ping ‘an, but popular is not what we were looking for. We wanted something a little more secluded; so we set off from Guilin for the village of Dazhai, which has a reputation as a smaller and more chilled out place to use as a home base for exploring the terraces.
As is usually the case when riding buses in China, we were the only westerners on board and weren’t entirely sure where our stop was, but that always helps to build the sense of adventure. After about two hours, we were dropped off at a pretty deserted little bus stop, if you can even call it that, and our bus sped on down the road. Luckily for us, a young Chinese couple from Guangzhou had gotten off the bus as well, and we decided to share a van to Dazhai (thanks to them, we were able to get the real “Chinese” price and we were confident that we were headed in the right direction).
When we arrived at the gate to Dazhai, the driver told us that we would have to hike the rest of the way as motor vehicles are prohibited beyond the city gate. Thank God, no motor bikes to dodge for at least a few days! We had found the solitude we were looking for.
While very secluded, Dazhai is situated at the base of spectacular terraced mountains, so we decided to continue our trek uphill to another village called Tiantou. Tiantou is even smaller and offers the best panoramic views in the area. Everything in this village is carried up by a person or packed on the back of an animal. We saw everything from live chickens to rice noodles to beer being brought up on the back of mules. We even saw a Chinese tourist being carted up the mountain in a wooden chair carried by four other men. Lazy? Or smart?
About half way into the 40 minute hike to Tiantou, it started to dump rain as thunder reverberated between the peaks; we quickly realized we were in the midst of our first monsoon. Our umbrella wasn’t doing much of anything, so we started running until we found shelter under a covered bridge.
When the rain slowed down a bit, we marched onward until we finally reached Tiantou Village and came across a hostel with a spare room. Turns out the storm had caused several landslides knocking down lines and leaving the entire village without power. No electricity meant using flashlights, meals cooked by fire, no internet, and no hot showers. It lasted our entire stay and it was absolutely fantastic! For the first time since we began our journey, we truly felt off the grid.
The rice paddies in this region are incredible. Not only are they beautiful, but they are a true testament to the lengths people will go to create a steady source of food. The mountains are terraced into steps that seem to reach into heaven, and, with some imagination, it is easy to see where the name “Dragon’s Backbone” comes from.
Our visit overlapped with planting season, so workers were hard at work clearing and shaping the land, filling up the paddies with water and planting seedlings in the muddy terraces. In just a few months all of the terraces will be completely filled and covered in green growth which must be a spectacular sight.
The rain that we encountered on our first day persisted throughout most of our stay, but that didn’t make our time any less enjoyable. We spent a lot of time reading, playing cards, and enjoying the rain storms from the sheltered patio of our hostel. We were, however, fortunate enough to catch a break in the weather long enough for one full day of hiking. The area offers many trails that follow the contour of the terraced mountains, and steps allow you to transcend up and down between villages and viewpoints.
After a long day of hiking, we were tired; our legs were killing us from all the stairs. But we had to capture the excitement that we still felt from being in such a magical place. We decided to end our hike with a little photo shoot and jump for joy atop our final viewpoint.
Upon arriving at the dock in Yangshuo, we said goodbye to our boat full of new Chinese friends and set off for our hostel. We heard many stories about the budget accommodations and even cheaper food to be had in China, but until Yangshuo, we had yet to fully experience them. Our hostel was awesome and we were shocked to find beds for only $2.50 USD. We instantly realized the cost benefit of traveling in China; no wonder so many backpackers flock to this region. Our one-year trip may have just been granted an extension.
The cruise down the Li River offered spectacular views, and during our four days in Yangshuo we continued to be wowed by the magnificence of the limestone peaks. At home we spend much of our free time hiking and enjoying the outdoors, so naturally, we like to do the same while on the road. One of the best bike rides of our life happened in Yangshuo, through the Yulong River Valley. We cycled for 20km up and down the river on rocky paths exploring small villages, rice paddies, and the surrounding peaks. The farmers who live in the region work hard under the heat of the sweltering sun, but man do they live in a beautiful place. We found ourselves wondering if they realize that their home is situated in one of the most unique landscapes on the planet.
We spent another one of our days in Yangshuo hiking toward the town of Fuli, but this time the heat was too much to handle. We only made it about 6km into the hike before opting for a more enjoyable plan: beers in the shade along the Li River. At our apartment in Denver, we frequently enjoyed sitting on our balcony and taking in the view with a beer or glass of wine, and we enjoy doing the same while traveling.
On our last day, we took a bus to the nearby town of Xingping. You can never really get tired of the amazing mountains in the area, but what we most enjoyed about Xingping was the town itself. Its relaxed vibe stems from its small size, smiling locals and lesser influence of tourism than its neighboring cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. We considered changing our travel plans to relocate there for a few days, but the Longji Rice Terraces to the north were calling our name.
Back home, cooking and savoring fun and inventive meals is something we truly love, and it’s no different when we find ourselves in a foreign place. We were surprised by a cafe in Xingping where we enjoyed one of the best Chinese meals we have had so far. The pineapple duck and side of taro root with bok choy lingered deliciously in our mouths for the rest of the afternoon.
Our week of biking and hiking in Yangshuo made us feel at home. May 16th marked four months since we arrived in Barcelona to begin our RTW trip. At times we honestly do get a little homesick, especially when our friends and family reach milestones in their lives. Even though we are living our dream, we know that life goes on back home for those we love. That being said, we are going to end this post with a throw-down of shout outs to some very special people; they have been in our hearts and minds throughout the journey (events in chronological order, no favorites here)…
Abe – We miss you greatly, but your love for travel lives as we explore this amazing world.
Max & Tamara – Another Siler, yes! We are so excited to meet Paul!
Cindy & Marisol – Congratulations again on your engagement! We will 100% be there to celebrate with you on your wedding day!
Alina & Mike – We welcome Sebastian into the world and our family!
Liz & Alyssa – Sorry we couldn’t make the Portland Juice Press launch party. So proud of you and looking forward to our first taste of the juices upon our return!
Nick – You the man! Congrats on your graduation and starting a new chapter in your life. We love you!
Christina – You’re done with law school! Congratulations friend! We hope to celebrate with you down south after you take care of that pesky bar.
And a big thanks to ALL of our readers! Sharing our experience via The Chamborres Expedition makes us feel a home wherever we may be.
Guilin, situated in China’s southern province of Guangxi, is known for its scenic karst peaks that dot the banks of the Li River. Boating down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of the most popular tourist activities in China and you cannot possibly visit the town without being offered “Bamboo boat?” by an old woman several times per day.
We were excited to cruise the river, but were surely not willing to pay the ridiculous prices charged by many tour companies. With a goal in mind, we set off one morning to haggle our way to a solid discount. Turns out the cheapest way to get down the Li is to forgo the English tour guide, and go on a Chinese boat instead. Why not? The river’s scenery should do all the talking anyway; who wants an annoying narration to cloud the natural beauty? Skipping the English practically cut the price in half; so, we forked out our money and signed up for the Chinese boat.
The next morning, a bus picked us up at our hostel as planned. So far, so good. After all of the passengers were on board, we headed off on a short drive to the pier. Eventually the tour guide got on her mike and started doing her thing. We had no clue what she was saying, hell, she could have been telling the entire bus that we were ugly and smelled, but it didn’t matter to us.
Next thing we know, the pitch of the tour guide’s voice was raising and a few other passengers were beginning to speak up loudly. The tour guide was pointing her finger and speaking quite quickly while sighing and rolling her eyes. At one point or another, pretty much everyone on the bus had chimed in. Clearly, there was an intense argument going down. It’s amazing the things you can figure out without understanding a single word. To this day, we still have no idea what it was all about, but at the time we thought it was hilarious and were relieved that it didn’t involve us.
After the fight was over, the bus pulled over on the side of the road. “Are we here?” we both asked each other. Everyone emptied off the bus, so we decided to follow suite. Down the hill a bit, a dodgy looking boat was pulled up next to a rickety dock. There were not enough seats for everyone and we were beginning to think that we had been duped. Maybe this was what the argument on the bus was about? Nonetheless, we just went with it.
After a few minutes of cruising the river, our camera was snapping away. Just when we had come to terms with the sub-par condition of our boat, we pulled up to another pier, this time with several other boats docked next to it. Hmmm…what was going on this time? Turns out we were now supposed to switch to another boat. Still, having no clue what was happening, we just followed the other passengers. This boat was much cleaner and safer looking, had enough seats to go around, and was even equipped with a toilet!
The cruise was now officially underway! We marveled at the spectacular scenery during the entire four hour ride. Visiting in May is an ideal time because the limestone peaks are coated in a lush green cover.
Even though we did not know what the tour guide was saying, we could always pick up when a peak of particular interest was coming up. The Chinese would rush the top deck, cameras in hand.
Close to the beginning of the boat ride, someone came up to us and motioned towards their camera. Oh, they want us to take their picture. “No problem” we say. “No, no, no. Photo” she says as she points to us. Next thing we know, we are in the middle of an all out photo with her and her entire family. And this was only the beginning. We found ourselves cracking up during the majority of the boat trip as more and more people asked to take pictures with us. We felt like celebrities. We even caught this guy taking our photo on the sly…
Scenery, bus fight, photo shoots, and all, it was a great boat cruise down the Li River.
The moral of the story is, when you visit Guilin, definitely opt for the Chinese boat cruise down the Li River. It will be far more eventful than sitting with a bunch of old farts on the western boat. You will pay less, see the same beautiful scenery, take tons of photos with new friends, and maybe even learn a little Chinese while you’re at it.
Hong Kong is one of those places that will increase your heart rate within minutes of arriving. It is a bustling city with skyscrapers, neon lights and crowds of people at every turn; it even holds the record for the most densely populated place on earth. One of its neighborhoods, Mongkok, houses more than 130,000 people in one square kilometer! What many people don’t realize is that Hong Kong is more than a city; the region also boasts hundreds of islands and large expanses of sparsely populated coastal jungles.
Not only are Hong Kong’s diverse landscapes intriguing, but its socio-political situation also leaves you wanting to learn more. Long held by the British and returned to Chinese control in 1997, the city is still in its infancy as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Its western style is prevalent, while its Chinese roots are unavoidable. During our week visit, we often found ourselves teetering between two different continents. Although technically part of China, Hong Kong feels like its own small country. It has its own immigration and customs controls, currency and flag. At the moment, only Hong Kong and Macau are designated as SARs in China, but the model is seen as a possible solution for future reunification of contested islands, such as Taiwan.
Hong Kong’s mainland neighbor, Shenzhen, provides an interesting parallel to Hong Kong. Shenzhen was China’s first experiment with Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which are pockets of “capitalism,” for lack of a better word, within this Communist country. In just under 60 years, Shenzhen went from a small fishing town to a bustling, skyscraper-laden mega-city of over 10 million in the greater metro area. We stopped in Shenzhen for a few days before entering Hong Kong; it was an interesting place to visit to gain a brief education on how Deng Xiaoping’s policies reformed China and how Shenzhen shaped the future of the nation’s SEZs.
Politics aside, Hong Kong is a playground for travelers from all walks of life (although budget backpackers be warned, it is not a cheap destination). Both the cuisine and shopping run the gamut from the finest international establishments to the most budget options around. As long as you can handle the heat and humidity, outdoors enthusiasts could spend weeks in Hong Kong jumping from island to island.
We made our home base on Hong Kong Island in the area known as Causeway Bay. Although one of the more expensive hostels we’ve stayed at thus far, the view from our room on the 14th floor could not be beat! The building boarders Victoria Park, one of the largest green spaces on Hong Kong Island, and the views spanned all the way across the harbor to Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.
Since many HongKongese work in Causeway Bay, it is home to some of the best and most affordable local lunch spots in town. You can eat until your stomach is bursting at one of Hong Kong’s famous dim sum restaurants, or choose from a variety places that serve up everything from Cantonese cuisine to hot Szechuan dishes. The prosperity of the city has made it a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. If there is a particular type of cuisine that you are looking for, it can certainly be found in Hong Kong.
Before arriving in Hong Kong, one of our friends suggested that we absolutely not miss the Peak Tram. He was spot on with this recommendation. The tram itself feels like riding a roller coaster up the side of a mountain, and once at the top, the views of Hong Kong are incredible. We quickly skipped through the horde of tourists at the top and headed straight towards the network of trails that meander through the hills. The canopy of trees and ferns are not only beautiful, but help to lower the temperature which is a welcomed change from the heat beating down on the concrete jungle below.
We like to think of ourselves as smart and seasoned travelers, but from time to time, we do fall into a tourist trap. Although it pains us to admit it, one such incidence happened in Hong Kong. We had heard about a Big Buddha on the island of Lantau, and having not been in Asia for more than a few weeks, it sounded pretty cool. So, we hopped on the metro, and then a bus, and after about two hours, we had arrived. To our disappointment, said “Big Buddha” was situated in the middle of a fake village, all of which had only been built in the 1990s. The town even included a 7-11; Slurpee while you see the Buddha, anyone? To make matters worse, the statue (albeit big) was nearly completely hidden by a thick mist. We will include a photo for you all to see; this way we won’t feel like our trek to Lantau was a complete waste of an afternoon.
No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a little beach time. After all, how can you visit an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea without getting a little R&R? To get away from the city, we took a ferry to the Island of Cheung Chau. Mainly a fishing harbor, the island also offers some fantastic beaches and hiking. Our time at the beach was, well, time at the beach…plenty of sun, sand, and cold beer.
In the afternoon, we set out for a hike around the exterior of the island. The views were great and the ocean breeze was so refreshing after baking in the sun.
We hadn’t expected too much excitement, just a leisurely hike, but all that changed when found ourselves face to face with a four foot Chinese Cobra. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, as the snake made a wise choice and quickly fled up the mountain, but just seeing a snake like that is enough for a hefty shot of adrenaline.
Exotic yet familiar, Hong Kong is truly one of those places that you have to see to believe. It has so many moving parts, but somehow everything still seems to gel. If the travel bug inside of you is yearning for the excitement that the Far East offers, but you are a little unsure about taking the plunge, Hong Kong is the place for you.
Hello China! Stepping off the plane in Guangzhou felt like landing in any other country. Although the immigration lines were long, the process was simple. No questions asked; they just looked at our passports, checked a few things in the computer and sent us on our way without even scanning our bags. This was a relief because we were a bit concerned that the several bottles of prescription meds (malaria pills, antibiotics, etc.) that we carry with us might raise some eyebrows, and China has very severe drug policies.
Upon exiting the airport, we quickly learned that very, very little English is spoken in Guangzhou. Based on the directions provided by our hotel, we were able to find the correct bus (win!); however, once on board, we wondered if we would make it alive, and if we did, where we should get off. It was monsooning outside, which did not seem to faze the driver in the least. He was weaving in and out of other buses and tiny motorbikes, not to mention the horn was blaring for more than half of our 40 minute commute. Keep in mind, both of us have experienced the South and Central American chicken buses, and the fact that this driver freaked us out is a really bad sign. Based on a suggestion from a friend, we found the most hip looking young person on the bus and asked if he knew where we should get off. He spoke a little bit of English, and pointed us in the right direction.
Just like the movies, the streets of China are chaotic, filled with motorbikes and completely lacking rhyme and reason. We quickly learned that pedestrians do not have the right of way, traffic lights and cross-walks do not mean much, and people frequently drive against traffic to get where they need to go. Based on our experience with the wild traffic in Morocco, we now use the term “Marrakech-ing” to describe the process of crossing the street by weaving in-and-out of speeding cars and bikes. Yes, it sounds and is dangerous, but it is the only way to get from one side to the other. It is always a bit of a relief to make it across unscathed.
As usual, one thing we were really looking forward to was the Chinese food! We know, we know, we talk about food all the time, but it is a very central part of our lives. After all, everyone has to eat. Since Guangzhou is not a destination for most non-Chinese tourists, it was easy to find a local restaurant. Surprise, surprise, there was zero English on the menu. But luckily, menus with pictures seem to be fairly common in China. We pointed at a few tasty looking dishes, and next thing we know we had devoured our first real Chinese meal. It was incredibly spicy, and incredibly delicious. We ended our first night in China feeling quite satisfied with the fact that we had managed to enter the country, get to our hotel and eat dinner without having our hands henna tattooed (didn’t get the inside joke? It’s OK, just read this post).
To start our next day, we went to the front desk and asked how to get to one of the city’s museums. The agent responded with a laugh “ooh, it very far.” The fastest way was a taxi, but we don’t do taxis unless absolutely necessary. A colleague of Mike’s gave us some advice about cab drivers when we were in Croatia. He said, “Don’t take cabs. The drivers are all crooks and thieves.” We know that most cab drivers are honest people who work long hours, but we agree with Denis that taking a cab in a foreign place is a pretty easy way to get fleeced. But, back to Guangzhou, we ended up taking a bus back to the airport; then, caught the metro. Guangzhou is a city of about 13 million people; the train system is modern, efficient and absolutely packed. Each train is about 12 cars long, and you can barely see the end of the loading platform. Just when you think no more people can possibly fit into the car, people will run, jump and launch themselves through the doors.
We ended up being quite impressed by the Guangzhou Museum. It is free as long as you agree to having your passport checked (apparently this is how China rolls). The exhibits are visually stimulating with many life-size dioramas to help convey the history, resources and traditional art of the Guangdong region.
After the museum, we hopped back on the metro to the other side of the city. Although we eventually found the Temple of the Six Banyon Trees that was our intended destination, the street life caught our interest more. We found everything from teapot vendors to egg-on-a-stick food stalls. We even saw a few people that were charging money to let you electrocute a caged rat. Along the way, we even ran into one of China’s oldest mosques. Legend has it that it was built by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhamed in 650 A.D.
Guangzhou doesn’t make guidebooks’ must-see lists in China, and many people will pass it off as just “another large Chinese city.” What we enjoyed about Guangzhou is that it seemed to be very authentic. Very little English and very few people trying to make a quick buck off of tourists. All in all, it was a fun and eventful introduction to China.
For the second post of our Istanbul Photo Series, we are highlighting the mosques of the city. Although Turkey is secular by law, the presence of Islam is clear. The skyline is filled with domes and minarets of the numerous mosques, and the calls to prayer can be heard in all corners of the city. Yet, at the same time, locals are very much embracing Western culture, European fashion and a hopping nightlife. It is a city with many dualities. In some countries, mosques cannot be visited by non-Muslims; however, in Istanbul, mosques are a top tourist destination. (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load)
THE BLUE MOSQUE
THE HAGIA SOPHIA
THE LITTLE HAGIA SOPHIA
YENI CAMI (THE NEW MOSQUE)
If you’re hungry, eat before reading this post. We spent more than a week in Istanbul and are confident in saying that it is one of our favorite cities in the world. There are so many things about Istanbul that we want to share; so many that writing about all of them could take weeks. That being said, we’ve decided to create a photo series dedicated to this spectacular place. For our first installment, FOOD! (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load)
ÇAY – Turks drink a lot tea which they call çay (pronounced chai)
STREET FOOD – The best restaurants in the world don’t have websites
RESTAURANTS – Great local eateries off the beaten path
DESSERT – Turkish sweets are normally taken as an afternoon pick-me-up, rather than following a meal