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Kunming – Stone Forest

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Relaxed Kunming made a great change after the brash commercialism of Guilin. Unfortunately traffic seems to be overwhelming the city. When we went to the ‘Stone Forest’ our local bus took over an hour to travel the few kilometers to the east bus station. Fortunately the remaining 75 km only took an hour and a half, although we first had to wait for the bus to fill with passengers.

The ‘Stone Forest’ is an amazing jumble of stone pillars, cracks and fissures formed by acidic errosion. Once we wandered beyond the majority of the Chinese tour groups we were able to enjoy the spectacle in relative tranquility. It was great fun threading along the paths that run up and down through gulleys and holes in the rock. As often happens some passing Chinese wanted their photo taken with the ‘wei guo ren’ (outsiders). A strange but amusing diversion!

Written by zantine

September 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm

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The Dragon’s Backbone

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The ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ is an amazing expanse of rice terraces rising over a thousand meters up steep mountain sides. The region, with its photogenic scenery, has become a major tourist attraction. Most visitors stay close to the villages but we escaped into the hills by walking the traditional paths between villages. Despite a lack of clear directions we arrived at our destination in time to catch the last bus. Tourists were packed on like sardines for the steep ride down. Fortunately the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese came to the rescue. Knowing that many of us would be returning to Guilin the local bus company organised a transfer to a direct express bus, short circuiting the normal change in Longsheng and cutting our return trip to three hours.

Written by zantine

September 13, 2010 at 11:44 am

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Li River

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Between Guilin and Yangshuo the Li river runs through a fabulous landscape of karst peaks. Formed by acidic erosion the steep sided peaks seem to capture the spirit of China. No doubt because these stunning vistas are featured in so many Chinese paintings. The photo above shows part of a famous scene depicted on the 20 yuan banknote. We were able to enjoy the views from a ‘bamboo’ raft. However traditional the vista, time has unfortunately not stood still; the rafts now float on bamboo shaped white plastic tubes.

Written by zantine

September 13, 2010 at 6:50 am

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Guilin Reed Flute Cave

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While waiting for a bus to visit ‘Reed Flute cave’ we were offered a cheap ride in a ‘tuk tuk’. We finally accepted, curious to discover what scam the driver was working. En route to the cave he stopped at a travel agent and picked up paperwork, no doubt converting us to a tour group and giving themselves a commission when we purchased our tickets.

The cave itself was vast and filled with impressive formations of stalagmites and stalactites. The garish lighting brought the formations to life. Unfortunately the lights were on timers which forced us to stay close to a tour group. We thus had to endure the constant commentary of the guides equipped with the inevitable electronic amplification. A far cry from the harmonious sound of flutes that were once fashioned from reeds cut at the cave entrance.

Written by zantine

September 13, 2010 at 2:12 am

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Beijing Summer Palace

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The Summer Palace in NE Beijing was once a retreat for royalty. Now it is essentially just another park though rich in heritage. One example is the marble boat on the northern edge of the lake, built by the Empress Cixi when she refurbished the grounds with money originally intended to modernise China’s navy.

For the last few weeks we’ve been living in north Beijing, near a nice residential neighbourhood called Anzhen Li. We celebrated our departure with an outstanding dinner of baked red trout at a local fish restaurant. We could however have done without inspecting the poor fish flapping in a bucket before being sent to the kitchen! Unfortunately choosing dinner is not normally so easy. We normally pick dishes by spotting characters in the menu such as chicken and tofu, or asking for specific items such as aubergine. To add to the pressure the waitress normally stands over you while you choose and may make suggestions in fast mandarin. Often small places will offer items that are not actually listed and on one occasion when we asked for egg and tomato noodles someone quickly went shopping!

Written by zantine

September 10, 2010 at 6:34 am

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What’s in a name?

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From last Wednesday anyone buying a new SIM card in China has to show their identity card. It seems likely that this will have a very limited effect on controlling spam, however its impact on privacy may also be more limited than people fear. The rules are only slowly being rolled out across China and it may be years before they finally get to grips with the millions of existing subscribers though they apparently hope this will be done within 3 years. Having experienced the inconsistent way existing rules are applied I hold out little hope for them achieving this deadline. We have brought three PAYG SIM cards and each time the experience was different. In a town north of Beijing they wanted my passport though they settled for my photo driving licence. In Shanghai we simply purchased a SIM pack from a corner shop and were done. And as one CCTV reporter admitted, when Beijing shop keepers were asked off camera what was required to get a new phone card the reply was simple, just money.

Written by zantine

September 3, 2010 at 4:07 am

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Ticket to ride

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The train ticket booking halls can be vast with up to forty or more counters each with long queues. However they are mostly quite orderly. The one exception was Nanjing where we fled the chaos and headed to the bus station.

Once you reach the head of the queue you still need to ensure you buy the correct tickets. You often end up discussing alternatives in halting Chinese when you discover your original choice of train, date, or seat class is not available. On a couple of occasions we have purchased sleeper tickets only to discover we have been given tickets in different compartments. Once tickets have been issues the only solution is to get your fellow passengers to agree to swap when you board the train. This can be facilitated by an emotional outburst that embarrasses the attendant and your fellow passengers until they finally give way.

If you can’t get an allocated seat you can get a standing ticket and hope there are spare hard seats or try to upgrade once you are on the train. These tickets are very cheap and may be the only ones available at short notice as we discovered when going from Changchun to Harbin. This 4.5 hour trip cost us only £2 each and fortunately there were spare seats. On one of our other journeys some police solved this problem by taking over part of the buffet car for the duration of the trip.

The tickets can normally be booked up to ten days in advance and during the holidays may quickly get sold out. We were fortunate once to get out of Beijing at a few days notice with the help of a friend of a friend who worked on the train. We had to phone her on arrival to set a meeting point in the station concourse. We finally managed to find one another and she walked us through to the platform and arranged for us to buy sleeper tickets from the conductor. An interesting experience as we had never previously met and she only spoke Chinese!

Written by zantine

September 3, 2010 at 3:17 am

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