Beijing to Hong Kong Express 14: On to the Philippines then Home

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 14: On to the Philippines then Home

Hello Friends,

July 25, 2015: My last morning in Hong Kong was relaxing; my flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 11AM so I didn’t have to check out of the hotel early. I still woke up at 6 AM with lots of time for a couple cups of coffee in my room before locking my bags and taking them down to the lobby. I had a taxi pick me up at 08:00 to take me to the airport. I could’ve pulled my roller bag several blocks to the pick-up point for the airport bus or taken the metro then transfer to the express train to the airport, both of which were cheaper than but not as convenient as taking a taxi.

It took about 30 minutes to the airport, built on one of the outer islands away from the city. It was under construction and nearly complete when Hong Kong transferred to Chinese authority in 1997, opening in 1998. The new airport was a huge improvement over the old Kai Tak airport that served Hong Kong since the 1920s, in Kowloon and built on reclaimed land with the runway extending into the harbor. The new airport has one of the largest terminal buildings in the world and is modern and efficient. This was my first flight into or out of Hong Kong since 1969 when we flew into the old Kai Tak Airport, with the flight path directly over Kowloon.

At the airport my adventure in China finally ended, in two weeks I experienced a little of what the vast country had to offer and made a slew of new friends. The flight on Philippine Airlines left about an hour late, arriving in Manila late as well. I was worried about catching my ride because my friend Archie would pick me up and I didn’t know how to contact him about the delay. I arrived at the Philippine airlines terminal which I had only used once before, also every time before when I visited the Philippines my friend Allan, Archie’s brother who worked at the airport, was there to meet me and could coordinate with Archie driving in. This time there would be no Allan, he’d taken a new job overseas in Doha, Qatar. But it all worked out OK, Archie called a friend working at the airport and learned about the delay, and I saw his black van coming down the road as he drove in.

In the Philippines I always stay with friends, the Gonzalvo family in Los Banos, a city about 2 hours south of Manila and home of the University of the Philippines, Los Banos, UPLB; one of the premier universities in the country, founded during the American Colonial period in 1909. During my short one week stay I really didn’t do much of anything exciting but had time to relax; in seven days I only worked in 4 visits to the spa for foot and body massages.

Other than visiting friends, going to the public hot springs for a morning soak, taking daily swims in the resort pool and generally relaxing, the high point was visiting the Balubad Elementary School in Lumban, a city an hour’s drive from Los Banos. It’s a small elementary school on the edge of the city, the students a mix of farm families and city kids. It has a sizable proportion of poor kids and the community is very supportive. Several years ago the community wanted its own elementary school, the local children went to a larger school several miles away and it was very hard for some to attend. Philippines schools don’t have a transportation system so each family is responsible for getting their children there, many families couldn’t afford the expense of transportation and it was a long way to walk. The community donated the land and the school district provided the school, now serving about 280 students.

A few years ago I learned that many of the families were unable to provide lunches for their children to take to school and many had little food even at home. The principle at the time, Dr. Roselie Tamina is my friend and was setting up a feeding program for those kids; my mother and I became the sponsors. It’s a great program that really works, at the beginning of each school year all the students receive a medical exam and those diagnosed as malnourished are in the program. The school staff provides all administrative support and the parents do the shopping, cooking and clean up so there are no administrative costs, all the money goes to providing food for the kids. Each day they get a morning snack and a full cooked, nutritious meal after classes; it may be the only balanced meal they get all day. The documented improvements in attendance and scholastic achievements are dramatic.

Every year when I visit the Philippines I stop by to say hello and see the kids; seeing them and their smiles is a joy. I stopped by the school, all the students came out to say hello, wave and smile, those in the program put on a short performance for me and I met some of the parents who do all the actual work while I shared their meal. During lunch I spoke with the District Superintendent who was there to greet me, along with Doctor Tamina who is now principle at another school and Beth Cabiscuelas the current principle. The program is a model recognized by the school district and which other schools are eager to adopt. The problem with expansion is of course money, the districts don’t have the funds and sponsors for more schools are needed. In the five years of the program the number of students in the program has varied from as many as 30 to a low of 15 this year. Considering that the program receives just $1200 for the entire school year, the fact it can provide meals for 30 kids amazes me. If anyone is interested in finding out more about the program, please let me know.

Because my visit was so short I didn’t get to travel very far afield but did see several very good friends, even working in a night out for dinner with my good friend Doctor Jeng Cariaga. We had hoped to go somewhere with music or entertainment, but settled for eating at a new, trendy little restaurant in Los Banos. When I say little I mean it; entering the side door of a small house, the entry had room for maybe 2 people standing and the 5 tables maybe sat 15 people, with room to squeeze between tables, if you were very slim; which I’m not.

On Saturday night before flying home, the Gonzalvo clan and I went out to dinner at a very nice restaurant near the university campus. There I noticed a sign that they had music on Friday nights, I wished I had known that the night before when Dr. Jeng and I were looking. It was a very popular restaurant and a bit trendy with great food and lousy service. Instead of normal menus, each table got a tablet computer as the menu and you picked out your order on the tablet. It almost went well, once we figured out how to use it, and they only got 3 of our orders wrong.

August 2, 2015: The morning I left, Archie and I had to leave the house about 05:30 to get to the airport two hours early for my 09:30 flight; it was early Sunday morning so traffic was very light. I’ve visited the Philippines enough that once at the airport all went well and my flight left right on time. About 20 hours later, after layovers and plane changes in Tokyo, Japan and Vancouver, Canada I arrived in SeaTac Airport in Seattle at 2:30 PM the same day I left Manila; the International Date Line really can mess with your internal clock. My traveling was nearly over, just a shuttle ride and I was back in my own house by 5 PM, journey and adventure complete.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

Scott C. Ames
https://scames.wordpress.com

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

From the Poem Ithaca by K. P. Kavafis (C. P. Cavafy)

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 13: Day Tripping in Macau

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 13: Day Tripping in Macau

Hello Friends,

July 24, 2015:  Charlie and I were booked on the 09:00 fast ferry to Macau, and arranged to meet at 8 o’clock at a coffee shop in the terminal building.  I left the hotel about 07:30, thinking it should take 15 minutes to walk to the terminal; it wasn’t raining but threatened.  About half way there I came to a detour that routed the sidewalk into a huge construction project, after walking about half a mile I found that the walkway to where I needed to go was blocked off completely.  I had to backtrack past the detour to find a way across the busy road, I got to the ferry terminal about 15 minutes late, Charlie was there waiting. Luckily I remembered to bring the ferry tickets so there were no other problems and we had time for a cup of Tea for Charlie and Coffee for me before the gates opened to the departure area, where we had a short wait before boarding.

The ferry was a fast catamaran; comfortable assigned seats, a refreshment counter and first class seating on the upper level.  We left the pier and headed out of the harbor, the water was pretty rough but the catamaran hull cut through the waves neatly, it wasn’t a rough ride at all.  The trip took about 1 hour, we arrived just after 10 AM; we passed through immigration, no stamps in our passports, just another small slip of paper like when we arrived in Hong Kong.  The former Portuguese colony of Macau was founded as a trading port in the 16th century, nearly three hundred years before Hong Kong and transferred to China in 1999 as a Special Administrative region, the same as Hong Kong.  It’s one of the most densely populated areas of the world, over 600,000 people in an area of just over 11 square miles.

From the terminal we walked to a bus stop on the street and from the guide book knew we needed bus number 10 to take us to the historic center of Macau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It wasn’t a long wait, and we caught the bus, which accepted Hong Kong coins. It took us across a causeway from the ferry terminal past the downtown of Macau with the 4 and 5 star hotels and casinos that are the life blood of the modern city.  Because it’s separate from China with its own laws and administration, gambling is the primary industry.  Past the modern city, the bus let us off across from the white and black tiled Senado Square in the old colonial district; all of the major tourist attractions were walking distance from there.

Crossing the square, surrounded by colonial era administrative and religious buildings, we headed uphill, up a pedestrian only street filled with people and lined by shops of all sizes and types.  Off a side street at a café advertizing pork buns for breakfast, we stopped and took a table from where we watched the waitress go run back and forth across the street in the rain to the café and kitchen across the narrow alley. The sit down gave us a chance to study our tourist maps and lay out some sort of plan.  Our return trip to Hong Kong wasn’t until late in the afternoon so we had all day to explore the city.

After eating the very good pork buns, we headed up the hill farther to the iconic façade of St. Paul’s Church, built in the 17th century; the church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1835, leaving only the ornately carved façade standing. Even in the rain and drizzle the steps to the church were crowded with people taking selfies and posing with the façade in the background. The church façade is free standing and very unique with inscriptions and statues that are both Chinese and Portuguese, behind that the ancient foundations are excavated and displayed as archeological exhibits.

On the hill overlooking the old church is Monte Fort, once the main defense of the city and now a museum and public garden.  We didn’t visit the museum and much of the time in the garden was spent finding shelter from the heavy on-again-off-again rain. Coming down from the fort and church we stopped at a couple of temples and historic buildings on the tourist map, even finding time to step into a souvenir shop on the pedestrian only street where Charlie’s bargaining skills worked a better deal on the few small souvenirs we wanted than I would have gotten.  Because so many of the visitors to the city come on the ferry, Hong Kong dollars were accepted everywhere and they gave Hong Kong dollars and coins in change when they could.

Near a small square with fountain, across from the Cathedral, and down a narrow dead end lane we found a café owned by an Australian.  It had the air of an English Pub, lots of dark woodwork, the owner seated in front having his morning glass of wine, smoking cigarettes and reading the newspaper.  He was from Australia originally and lived in Hong Kong and Macau for 24 years, the last 7 running his little café.  Talking with him he loved it there, especially the fact that as long as he paid his business taxes, the city left him pretty much alone. We had a drink, enjoying the break from walking and staying out of the rain.

Back at Senado Square we walked to historic colonial buildings, homes and small temples on the surrounding streets.  There were locals going about their daily lives, shopping and working, all the activities of any city, but whenever we were out of the tourist areas, the streets were quiet and nearly deserted at times, a wonderful contrast to the throngs of tourists massed in and around Senado Square.  Southwest from the square, we crossed the main road and headed up another hill to the churches, monastery and old library on that hill then continued down narrow winding streets through residential and business neighborhoods toward the end of the small peninsula.  Along the way we passed the old military barracks that at one time housed Indian troops from the Portuguese colony of Goa, brought to garrison the city. On one narrow curving street, barely wide enough for one car to pass with cars parked on the side, nearly every storefront wide enough for a garage door held an automotive shop of one type or another.  It seemed every mechanic and machine shop in the city was on that one stretch of several blocks.

Finally we came to Barra Square on the tip of the peninsula, next to the waterway to the harbor.  In the square was the A-ma temple, it was build before the founding of Macau and dedicated to a variety of deities; across the square from the temple was a maritime museum.  We took a different path getting back to Senado Square, one that ended up taking us all along the waterfront, well out of the tourist zone.  After the long and tiring walk we eventually found the square, approaching it from the side opposite where we started, we had circumnavigated most of the peninsula and the old city.

Since we ate our pork bun breakfast pretty late, we didn’t stop for lunch until late in the afternoon.  We found a small shop off one of the side streets that specialized in fried noodles, they were very good.  Our return ferry to Hong Kong left at 6 o’clock so we eventually had to head back to the square to catch the bus to the ferry terminal.  Again it passed through the modern center of the city with its crowds of people flocking to the huge casino hotels.

At the ferry terminal we caught our boat which left right on time and we were pretty tired when the boat docked just after 7 PM; one more time through immigration where we again received the little slips of paper in our passports.  I walked with Charlie back to Nathan Road, across from her hostel and as she stepped into a 7-11 for snacks to take to her room, I started up the road to my hotel, about a kilometer away, stopping only at the little BBQ Pork restaurant near the hotel for s take-out dinner to take back to the hotel.  Charlie messaged me she had made it to her room with snacks to see her through the night and from checking the pedometer app on her phone she said we had walked over 18 kilometers.  I figured that with the long detour I took that morning getting to the ferry terminal and the walk from her hostel to my hotel, I must have done over 20.

This was my last night in Hong Kong, I ate my dinner in my room then sorted, repacked and organized everything to check out in the morning; my China adventure was coming swiftly to an end.  The next morning I would fly to the Philippines for a week visiting friends before heading home, I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 12: Free Day in Hong Kong

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 12: Free Day in Hong Kong

Hello Friends,

July 23, 2015: This was the last morning of the tour and most of us were able to say our goodbyes in the hotel lobby; people left for home or stayed in Hong Kong on their own. Luigi headed back to Germany on an early flight, the Swiss couple left for home later in the afternoon. Maria booked one night at a different hotel so checked out in the morning, Roman and Carmen and their two kids from Switzerland were staying one more night before going home as were Tommi and Laura from Finland. The three lads from London checked out of the hotel and were staying on for several days with Chris’ family in Hong Kong. Charlie booked three nights in a hostel and I had two nights booked at the hotel, she checked out of her room and stashed her gear in mine until she checked in at the hostel. Richard said goodbye to us in the lobby and headed by train to Beijing to spend some time at home with his family before his next tour started.

Charlie and I headed out for a day of sightseeing; in particular we wanted to find the Bird Market, a street that specialized in selling pet birds. We took the metro a couple of stations then walked a long ways through lots of different streets but never did find the bird market. We did find one street lined with shops selling gold fish. Every store on the street seemed to sell pet fish or supplies for raising them in apartments. Hundreds of little bags were hung outside the shops, each filled with water and small fish inside. Along the way we passed a couple of neighborhood markets set up on the streets and sidewalks, more of what you think of when I say Fish Market, the kind with fish you eat.

After a long morning of not finding the bird market we stopped into a crowded little restaurant, finding the last open table in the back, my feet were very happy for the sit down. After eating we took the metro back down Nathan Road, looking for Charlie’s hostel. It was located on an upper floor of one of the massive buildings on Nathan Road. Finally we found the right building, the ground floor filled by a mall with a bargain basement feel, not the upscale shops seen lining most of the street. We went through the mall until we came to an elevator off a side aisle. We took the elevator to her floor and in the maze of corridors we found a door for Apple Hostel, then through it to a small office with one lady behind the desk; the office filled with what appeared to be hotel supplies and a TV monitor on her desk showed the feed for security cameras in the elevator and hallways.

The lady had Charlie’s reservation and showed us to her room, it was through a couple of locked doors from the hallway outside the elevator. The corridors were more like a maze than any hostel I had ever visited, but we got to Charlie’s room and the lady unlocked it. The door swung inward, barely missing the single bed pushed up against the opposite wall. The room wasn’t even 6 feet wide and maybe 8 feet long, at least I think there was a little space between the foot of the bed and the open doorway to the tiny ensuite bathroom. I just stuck my head in since there wasn’t enough space for two people in the room at once; it did have air-conditioning, WiFi, looked clean and had clean linen. Charlie later joked that she could take a shower sitting on the toilet. It was a lot smaller than my room in the hotel, but Charlie just wanted a clean, safe room and she seemed satisfied. It was also very cheap, three nights cost less than one night in my hotel.

Once Charlie was checked in we went back to the street for some more exploring; she would move her gear from the hotel later. Since she was staying three nights at the hostel and me two nights at the hotel, we planned to go to Macau the next day. While walking along the waterfront, Charlie was approached by a group of school kids who asked her to help them with a school project, of course she said yes. They were taking a survey and it was fun to watch as they diligently tried to write down every word of her answers, sometimes she revised what she said to make that task easier.

The ferry from Kowloon to Macau left from a pier farther along than we walked the first afternoon so we walked down a few new streets we hadn’t seen the night before, doing a little window shopping along the way and watching the huge crowds that filled every street. It rained off and on all day and the clouds blanketed Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island so we didn’t bother crossing the harbor; Charlie wanted to visit the peak but would wait for clearer weather when she could actually see something.

The ferry terminal is in a newly developed area that must be built on landfill and newly reclaimed from the harbor called Harbor City. We finally found our way into the terminal and up the elevator to the ticketing and waiting area. There were ticket windows for a couple of companies with daily boats to Macau. After checking all the signs for prices and times, we decided to buy our tickets for the next day; to save time in the morning and ensure we had seats. Round trip tickets from Hong Kong to Macau cost about 300 HK$, about $40.

It was getting late in the afternoon so we headed back to my hotel. While Charlie gathered her gear from my room it grew dark and began to rain heavily. We hailed a cab and she took that back to the hostel. She had WiFi in her room so was able to message me that she made it safe and sound and was holed up for the night. We would meet again in the morning at the ferry terminal for a day of exploration in Macau.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

Scott C. Ames
https://scames.wordpress.com

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

From the Poem Ithaca by K. P. Kavafis (C. P. Cavafy)

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 11: Bullet Train and Hong Kong

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 11: Bullet Train and Hong Kong

July 22, 2015:  It was our last early morning, everyone was up, checked out and at the bus by 06:30. I’d given Tommi a packet of coffee the night before and I had my stash, so we both had our morning fix of caffeine before leaving our rooms.

The bus headed to Guilin, to the new station on the outskirts of town, not the one we arrived at in from Shanghai.  The new station was built for the new bullet trains; we were taking one from Guilin to Shenzhen. Because the new station was outside the city, and the driver drove at the speed limit the entire way, the trip took less than an hour.  At the station we crossed the car park, past vendors set up selling cold drinks, snacks and other foods for the train passengers.  We had a short wait for the doors to open, once they did all the passengers filed through the security screening, x-ray and metal detectors, into the huge waiting room with seats and just one small shop for snacks and drinks in a corner.  After about 45 minutes the train arrival was announce and we were allowed through to the platform.

Richard pointed to where we should stand and wait for the train, under sign #9, and then he went off to help someone else. I and the others were a bit confused; our tickets identified our seats on car #2.  Like any confused tourists, we waylaid an attendant, who luckily spoke English.  He looked at our tickets then walked us about 50 meters to the #2 sign; now that made sense.

Shortly after that the train arrived, like bullet train systems in Europe and Japan, this one was very efficient, stopped with the door to car #2 directly under the sign, exactly on time and would stop for exactly 2 minutes.  We stepped aside to allow passengers to disembark, and then we stepped on board, stowing our gear on the overhead racks or luggage area near the door.  The train was new, very modern and spotless with wood grain paneling in the wide area outside the restrooms at the end of the car.  We were seated in airplane style seats and I got the window.

The train zipped along through the Chinese countryside, past farms, fields, forests and villages.  The reader board along the top of the wall in the front of the car gave the speed in both Chinese and English; at its fastest we traveled along at 310 kilometers per hour, just over 180 mph. The uniformed attendant came through selling drinks; I ordered a coffee and it wasn’t bad. Our train ride lasted about 2 hours and was smooth, quiet and very comfortable.

When we stopped in Shenzhen, we crossed the station to a local train that took us to the border crossing between China and Hong Kong.  There we passed through passport control leaving China then though immigration into Hong Kong, technically Hong Kong is an autonomous region and not administratively part of China; I needed a tourist visa to visit China but it didn’t cover Hong Kong which did not require one. Interestingly my application for the visa was specific that I not include the dates in Hong Kong in the dates of travel.  We received exit stamps in our passports from China but no stamps for entry into Hong Kong, just a slip of paper that looked like a cash register receipt.

Once all the administrative procedures were taken care of, we boarded another local train to take us into Hong Kong.  It passed through the New Territories that separate Hong Kong from China.  When Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony, the New Territories acted as the buffer zone between the two countries and undeveloped; British Army Gurkas guarded the frontier. Now it’s being developed and once small villages are growing into small cities with high rise apartment blocks.

In Hong Kong we changed trains once more to a metro line to take us to Austin Station near our hotel, on the Kowloon Peninsula.  One exit from the station was at the end of the street our hotel was on; from there it was a short walk of about 2 blocks.  We were tired and hungry when we got to the hotel and checked in, most of us went with Richard about 2 blocks to a small restaurant specializing in BBQ pork, we each had a plate of pork, rice and vegetables with tea provided free on each of the few small tables inside; most of their business was take out through the window off the sidewalk directly into the tiny kitchen.  It was delicious.

After a short rest back at the hotel, we headed out for an orientation walk of Hong Kong.  It was about a kilometer from our hotel to the waterfront.  From our hotel we walked down Austin Street to Nathan Road, the major shopping street, then directly to the harbor. The crowds were everywhere, every street and side street packed, the street jammed with cars, busses, taxis and trucks; people were everywhere and going in all directions.

It was thirty years since I was last in Kowloon, back when I was on active duty in the Navy and 47 years since I was first there in 1968, it changed a lot since then; totally unrecognizable to me. We walked at least a kilometer from the hotel to the waterfront, built up on reclaimed land with a park, wide promenade, museums and convention center.  Walking along the water we could see the towering skyline of Hong Kong Island across the harbor but Victoria peak was lost in the low clouds.  Our walk took us to the Star Ferry terminal where we caught the iconic ferry and crossed the busy harbor.  On the island, next to the ferry terminal was a huge financial center tower with a very trendy and upscale shopping mall on the bottom few floors and included an Apple Store.  Several of us were too tired to spend time beating the pavement, so we ducked into the mall to find someplace with seats.  We finally found a Starbucks, and every seat inside and around it were taken, it appeared that many of the people there weren’t even drinking coffee, just camped in the seats with no indication of them ever leaving; with laptops and mobile phones they carried their offices with them.  We spent a long time sipping our coffees waiting for any seats to come open and none ever did.

At the appointed time we walked back to the Star Ferry and rode it to the Kowloon side.  The group gathered on the promenade, near the old Kowloon-Canton Railroad clock tower, the symbol of an earlier age that is now a landmark on along the modern waterfront. After darkness settled over the harbor, a laser light show lasting about 15 minutes lit up the towers across the harbor, the crowd of people massed on the promenade to watch was jammed together on the elevated walkway, everyone impressed by the beautiful display.  We stayed on the plaza away from the water’s edge after that show ended, waiting for another lightshow on the huge blank wall of a large windowless building I think was the convention center; with music and colorful lighting, that show was also great.

When it was over we started the long walk back to up Nathan Road to Austin Road toward our hotel.  Near our hotel we stopped at a restaurant for our farewell dinner, this was our last night together and the tour would end the next morning.  Since few but the highest end restaurants in Hong Kong take reservations, it wasn’t easy for Richard to find a place suitable, but he accomplished it.  We were seated in booths, in a corner on the upper floor of a two story restaurant. Other diners were around us, and we were not all at the same table but we made it work; the food was great and portions enormous. The menu had both Western and Chinese dishes so everyone got what they wanted.

All day I shepherded an envelope among the tour group for everyone’s tip money for Richard and sign the outside. As dinner ended I got it back and was able to stand in front of everyone and give it to Richard; thanking him on behalf of the entire group for his job well done of showing us a small bit of China; even the other guests at the restaurant clapped.

With dinner over, Richard had just one more thing for us to do, a visit to the Temple Street Night Market, luckily it was on the way to our hotel. After walking through a couple of blocks down the narrow lanes between stall after stall selling everything from clothes to toys and souvenirs some in the group were thinking of finding a bar, I on the other hand was too beat to even consider it.  I said goodnight and headed back to the hotel and sleep.  I hoped to see everyone in the morning to say my goodbyes.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 10: Bicycles and Rafting in Yangshuo

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 10: Bicycles and Rafting in Yangshuo

Hello my Friends,

July 21, 2015: At 07:00 several of us met in the lobby and followed Richard about two blocks to a small shop for breakfast of noodles and preserved egg; it was good, but a little different for breakfast. Back at the hotel at 08:00 we headed to West Street where a bike rental shop was waiting for us. We spent about 30 minutes picking out bicycles, most of them were in pretty good shape and they helped adjust the seats for us. I was among the less experienced bicyclers in the group and a little apprehensive about a long bike ride, especially on city streets.

Once everyone was on the bike of their choice, we headed out, right into the heart of the city. Luckily traffic wasn’t too bad, and we maneuvered down a couple of streets, the only real worry was staying close to the curb when cars came past then we crossed a four lane road, actually not as bad as I expected. Then we were able to stay on side streets and across a couple of construction areas, no traffic but rough going. After about 15 minutes we were out of town onto a road leading down a narrow valley with very little traffic. It was actually pretty easy going with no hills to speak of since the hillsides were so steep, the roads stayed in the valley bottoms. It was beautiful country, forested hills and rice paddies in the valley with a few homes built near the road. We quickly strung out along the road, the better riders keeping up closer to Richard and the rest of us coming along as best we could. Richard asked Roman, the father of the family from Switzerland, to be the last in line to catch any stragglers.

Richard pulled over at a small shop along the highway for a water break and a chance for everyone to catch up. Leaving the car park, I lost my chain as I pulled onto the road but Tommi, the engineer, had that quickly fixed. Chris, one of the lads from England, also had a little problem with his chain and gearing, the problem seemed to be our shifting more than the bikes themselves. Chris, Roman and Tommi had caught up with everyone by our next rest stop. The valley was green and beautiful with the rice fields, the occasional farmer out working by hand or just inspecting the rice. We turned off the pavement to a narrow dirt road/path through the fields, a wonderful way to really enjoy the quiet of the countryside and fields.

We were biking for over an hour when we stopped at a busy landing on the River Li. The landing was the beginning of the rafting excursion and those of us wanting to try the river put our bikes in the back of a truck and those not going on the water would bike downstream to meet us at the next landing.

At the landing were a huge number of rafts pulled up on the shore with all the boatmen waiting for tourists. The rafts were made up of 20 foot long bamboo poles lashed together, the bow and stern ends slightly bent up with a small seat for two people lashed across the center. The river was very shallow, smooth and slow moving so a boatman stood on the back and poled the boat downstream. Many of the rafts had umbrellas set up over the seat, Charlie’s and mine didn’t. The river was blocked every kilometer or so by weirs, low dams, they were made of stone, never more than a few feet high so the rafts easily slid over them at the spillways. It was a little exciting the first time we went over one, with the bow dipping in below the dam and the wash covering the raft logs, luckily our day bags were looped over the back of the seat so they stayed dry, just our feet got wet.

Below the weirs larger rafts were anchored with small shops onboard selling cold beer and snacks to the rafters, the boatmen encouraged their passengers to stop and buy, including one for themselves. Not speaking Chinese was an advantage since our boatman didn’t bother trying to talking us into it. Besides those in my group, all the other passengers seemed to be Chinese, often families with small kids, on some the men would try their hand at poling the raft or the little kids would see how close to the side they could get before the mother called them back. Ours was one of about 20 rafts that could be seen at any one time.

After about 45 minutes floating down the river, the boatman pulled us over to a small island in the stream. There we got off and relaxed at a small table while he rested with cigarette and a beer, a couple of other rafts from our group were there too. After about 15 minutes we re-boarded the raft and continued on down the river, past more weirs and anchored beer sellers. Along the way other rafts came by selling beer, they mostly tried to convince us to buy one for our hard working boatman. We passed a couple of landings along the riverbank where rafts were pulled up on the bank but we didn’t stop. About 45 minutes after the rest break, we did pull into a very large landing. There we disembarked and gave the boatman the 20 Yuan tip Richard had suggested. From the look on his face I saw he expected more but didn’t say anything. One of our group later told us their boatman wasn’t satisfied with the 20 Yuan, he wanted that from each of the passengers.

Back on dry land, we gathered under a roofed seating area, getting out of the sun and bought cold drinks and ice-cream at a nearby shop. Our bikes were off the truck and we continued down the road, headed to our next stop of the morning, Moon Hill.

Moon Hill was a karst with a large, semi-circular hole through the top of the mountain. At the bottom of the hill was a car park and restaurant. We parked our bikes and started walking up the hill to an observation area; the trail to the hole was 800 steps up the mountain. Richard would wait for us in the café. I started well enough but the higher I climbed the harder it became; God I Really Hate Stone Steps. About half way up I stopped at a level area with a concrete table and chairs with a couple of the boys from England where we took a rest. A Chinese couple was also there and the man challenged us to arm wrestling. The couple had been doing marshal arts exercises and he was very proud of his physique and very strong; he beat all three of us. After that we continued on our way. I was getting worn down by the climb, heat and humidity. About two thirds of the way up the 800 steps I could go no farther, the boys continued up as did everyone else in the group. I turned around there and went back down, thoroughly tired. Of course going down was a lot easier and I was feeling much better when I reached the bottom, where I went to the café and had a cold drink with Richard while waiting for the others. When they got down the hill, we ate lunch and everyone regained their strength. After eating some of us changed into our swim gear because the next stop on our bike ride was to a river for some swimming. We headed down the main highway then onto a country road through a small village and the road evolved into a single lane, concrete road through fields and farms. Along the way Chris and Roman fell far behind and we stopped on a shaded corner to wait for them. After a long wait, Richard went back looking for them and after about 20 minutes they came down the road. Chris and Roman had taken a wrong turn and doubled back when Richard got to them. The one lane of concrete ended at an abandoned housing development along the Li River. The concrete streets and curbs were completed but no houses built when construction stopped, I have no idea when it was abandoned. Just past the development was a dirt road and down that we came to a trail leading to the river beside an old irrigation canal where we parked the bikes and continued to the river on foot. The trail ended at the old concrete pumping station for the irrigation canal, now empty with no pumps. We followed the stone embankment that led to a low dam which had once diverted water to the pumping station. At the dam we piled our cloths and bags on the embankment and jumped in to the cool river. It wasn’t very deep but cool so we swam, splashed and played in the water for maybe an hour before getting out and heading back to our bikes.

Back on the dirt road it was an amazingly short ride to the main highway. Once there we headed back into town along a narrow access road beside the four lane highway. We turned onto a side road to town and for the first time since leaving in the morning, we had road traffic. It wasn’t heavy so we made good time. We soon passed the water park where they put on the water show. We made good time and even going through downtown the traffic was light, it took us about 5 minutes to get back to West Street, much better than the 20+ minutes it took to drive the night before to our hotel.

Everyone in the group was worn down and there were no takers for an optional outing to watch Cormorant fishermen that night. We all chose to go back to the hotel and we were on our own for dinner. Several of us, Richard, Charlie, Tommi, Laura, Maria from Sweden and I went to a quiet restaurant off the tourist street. Most of the rest ended up together in the same restaurant we ate lunch at the first day in Yangshuo. The others were still eating and enjoying another beer when I headed back to the hotel, too tired to enjoy any more fun. We were heading to Hong Kong in the morning and I needed my beauty sleep.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

Scott C. Ames
https://scames.wordpress.com

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

From the Poem Ithaca by K. P. Kavafis (C. P. Cavafy)

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 9: Yangshuo and the Water Show

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 9: Yangshuo and the Water Show

9 11 Dave and P-Boy in Yangshou

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 9: Yangshuo and the Water Show

July 20, 2015: It was a long morning on the train, scheduled to arrive in Guilin at 10:30 and we arrived an hour late. To help pass the morning, with just a few snacks for breakfast, I shared my instant coffee with Tommi. We had to take turns since he didn’t have a cup and I only had my tin cup; it worked out fine and we had two cups each to curb our cravings.

Once we got into Guilin we pulled our bags across the car park to a private bus to take us to our hotel in Yangshuo an hour away, or so we were told. The roads across Guilin were terrible, some of the rough ride was due to construction but much of it was just terrible roads. We never got above 30 kph, 18 mph, crossing town. Once out of the city the road improved to a typical two lane highway but the driver continued to drive under 45 kph. We were all tired and hungry from the long train ride and no breakfast so we asked Richard if there was a reason we drove so slowly, he spoke with the driver and he finally sped up to the 80 kph speed limit and we got to the hotel in Yangshuo about 2 hour after leaving the train station.

Our hotel was on the edge of the tourist area, on the main road. Since we checked in after noon there was no wait for our rooms and we could quickly shower and change before heading out for a walking tour of the town and more importantly, lunch.

Yangshuo was a lot different from any of the other stops on the trip. First of all it’s a small city surrounded by rural countryside of parks, forests and farms. It’s also famous for mountains of dramatic limestone formations called Karst. The limestone is eroded into cliff sided, round topped and forest covered structures several hundred feet high, more like towers than mountains, with rivers and streams in the bottoms of the many narrow valleys. It’s also on the backpacker trail, so along with upscale hotels, there are lots of small hotels and hostels, providing accommodations of every budget for all of the tourists who visit from across China and the rest of the world who come to enjoy the dramatic scenery; it’s a popular destination for rock climbers too.

An easy walk from our hotel was West Street, the backpacker and tourist center of action. Once past the bank for those who needed an ATM to recharge their wallets, those of us with dirty laundry dropped that off to be picked up later at a little shop just off the street. Then we followed Richard to a restaurant on a side street where we climbed to the second floor with tables overlooking the street where we enjoyed a very good lunch from their menu in both English and Chinese that included both Chinese and Western dishes.

After lunch Richard took the group on an orientation walk through the area around West Street. The narrow road was pedestrian only and lined on both sides with large and small shops of all kinds and eateries as were the side streets; the street was un-crowded but there were people of all ages and nationalities.

I told Richard at the beginning of the tour in Beijing that I collected masks and he mentioned they should be available in Yangshuo; I reminded him and he said I was sure to find what I was looking for here. We passed several shops with a few masks but nothing special and finally we came to one Richard pointed to and told me they had them. I went inside and one wall was covered with a hundred or more masks of all shapes and sizes; exactly what I was looking for. We were continuing the tour of the town and I knew I had time to come back so I didn’t spend much time looking them over.

When we made a complete circuit of the area, some of us returned to the hotel with Richard, others continued exploring or went for a massage. At the hotel we met up with a Tai Chi Master who would give a lesson for those interested, I don’t remember the price but I think it was about 70 Yuan each, $10. Several of us followed the Master to a nearby park where we found a quiet, shaded space and he gave us a lesson on the 10 moves that make up the first set and I think he said there were 24 sets of moves. He’d taught Tai Chi and other martial arts for 30 years and said it took about 10 years to become a Tai Chi Master. Everywhere we went in China groups, groups of people were seen doing Tai Chi as their morning exercises.

That night we had the option of going to a cultural show that was recommended as being very good; it was originally choreographed by the same man who directed the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. It was set up by the local tourist board to provide additional income for local farming families, about 500 of whom performed in the show. A van picked us up from the hotel at 6 o’clock and took about 20 minutes to cross town where the driver found an opening to park on the crowded street and then led us to the gates of a park; the crowd was enormous and shoulder to shoulder. He led us through the crowd to a table with sign #7 and told us to wait there in line. A lady who spoke no English came up and handed me a piece of paper with hand writing in Chinese and the number 7 on it, then she left. About 15 minutes later another lady, who did speak English took the #7 sign and we followed her, still with the little piece of paper. She pushed her way through the crowd with us in tow, thru the metal detectors which didn’t seem to be working and once inside the gates she handed me the sign and said to wait for her on the other end of a bridge, then she disappeared back into the crowd. Once past the bridge a couple of other groups saw my sign and joined us, they were other tourists who didn’t have any better idea than I did of what was going on.

About 15 minutes later the lady returned and asked for the slips of paper from the groups gathered at sign #7 and again disappeared into the crowd. Then after another 15 minutes or so, she returned with tickets, she gave me 7 tickets to pass out to the 7 people in my group and tickets to the other groups too. She pointed past the crowd to the arena area, told us to go there and disappeared for good into the crowd, taking the #7 sign with her. The ticketing process was long and confusing but seemed to work in the end.

My group followed signs and the crowd to the arena seating next to a lake with towering Karst formations on the far side, a beautiful setting. There were about 5000 people in the arena and we were in the middle of the second row, great seats.

About 2 minutes after we sat down, the lights dimmed and the program began exactly at 7:30 PM. There was music and announcements over the loudspeakers, all in Chinese so we had no idea of what was happening. Richard had given us a very short description of what the show was about and that was all we knew. It was a performance of actors, dancers and lighting effects depicting local legends and myths. It was confusing not understanding what was happening, but beautiful just the same. Everything took place on the water with performers in boats, rafts, barges and platforms just at the water’s surface illuminated by lights and carrying torches. The lighting was spectacular and set up around the lake as well as close to shore where we were; there is no way for me to describe everything but it was beautiful. The show ended at 9 PM with all of the performers coming ashore and taking their bows in the narrow area between the seating and the lake, everyone was in costume and it really was a professionally produced performance. I took some pictures with my limited skills and point and shoot camera but they only give an idea of the beautiful performance, lighting and costumes.

We walked back about 1 kilometer through the park, past the gates to where our van waited, it took ten minutes just to get off that street to the road to downtown and another 20 after that to our hotel. Hungry and wanting to go buy my mask, I walked back to West Street with Charlie and we eventually found the shop. The street was more crowded than during the day, it was packed like sardines, shoulder to shoulder in places, with many food carts and kiosks set up that weren’t there in the afternoon. There were also several clubs blaring earsplitting music that I hadn’t seen during the day; I also noticed more than a few stylish, sexy and pretty young ladies made up and headed to the clubs.

At the mask shop I looked over a few that were the right size and interested me, but I couldn’t make up my mind. Charlie pointed out one she liked, a Chinese style Buddha that I liked too; it was a contrast in style to the Buddha masks I have from Burma and Thailand. They asked 400 Yuan and I used my limited bargaining skills, settling on 300 Yuan. I should have asked Charlie to do the haggling for a better price; she was much better than me and later gave me a hard time about how I overpaid for it. With my new mask under my arm, we stopped at a cart selling pork buns, watched the lady make them and had a very late dinner sitting on the end of an arched bridge over a small stream before finding our way back to the hotel; we got turned around once but made it back safe and sound after picking up our washed and folded laundry along the way.

The next day would be a long and tiring with lots of exploring on foot and bicycle through the surrounding countryside.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 8: Shanghai and Night Train to Yangshuo

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 8: Shanghai and Night Train to Yangshuo

Hi Everyone,

Beijing to Hong Kong Express 8: Shanghai and Night Train to Yangshuo

July 19, 2015: It was our last day in Shanghai but the only thing scheduled was an optional trip to the old French concession area at 09:00. I was up and out for breakfast at 07:00, this time I ate hot pot stickers and an egg filled pastry on the street before back to my room to get my bags packed. At 09:00 about half the group met in the lobby and Richard took us to the metro where we headed to the French concession. Once there we spread out to sight see at our leisure.

During the European era, it was the French quarter of Shanghai and became a prime residential area while the British concession on the Bund became the commercial center of the city. It’s still a residential district; expensive and popular among expatriates from around the world living in Shanghai. Many of the original buildings in the small business area are restored and gentrified; modern, well maintained brick two and three story grey brick and stone buildings filled with upscale restaurants, shops and bars. In the center was a small brick paved plaza around a central fountain.

After walking the area Charlie, Luigi, the young man from Germany, and I settled into shaded seats outside the Starbucks to enjoy the morning along with a mixed crowd of Europeans and Chinese chatting, checking smart phones and reading newspapers like you see in any Starbucks anywhere in the world on a quiet Sunday morning. When well relaxed and ready for a little more exploring, we went to the small museum in one of the old buildings. In the 1920s it was a restaurant and in a backroom the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party was held. The museum is a huge homage to the party and Chairman Mao, portraying him as the key figure at the meeting which is a little different from what I learned in my history classes, but it’s their museum and they can present history as they see it.

The hotel check out time was 12 noon so Charlie and I took the metro back to the hotel on our own, easy as pie, while others who had already checked out spent more time exploring. Back at the hotel I had time for one last shower and was down stairs checked out by noon. We weren’t scheduled to leave for the train station until 1:30 PM so Charlie, Luigi, Laura, Tommi and I took a long walk around the neighborhood. It was a Sunday so the streets were pretty quiet, on some of the side streets the local residents moved out into the street like it was their back garden; chairs and tables were set up, men lounged with feet propped up on street barriers and neighbors gathered like any neighborhood anywhere in the world. Once back at the hotel, we waited until everyone had gathered and Richard took us by metro to the train station.

The station was new and huge; it looked and felt like an airport terminal including X-ray machines and metal detectors at the entrances. Once inside we still had a wait of over an hour so shopped for beer and snacks, sat in a group chatting or explored the terminal until our train was announced at 4:30. We then went through the gates to the escalators to the train platforms on the lower level. This train was like the previous night trains and we had the same hard sleeper arrangements. Most of us had dinner in the dining car, prepared for the limited menu and warm beer so not so many surprises.

It was a short day but we had a long night, a 19 hour trip to Guilin so lots of time to play cards, read, chat, rest and watch the countryside roll by before turning in for the night. In the morning we would be Guilin headed to our next stop in Yangshuo.

Enjoy the Journey

Scott