Category Archives: China

Hong Kong

We came into Hong Kong for one reason only…to catch up with some of our favourite people, Mike and Patricia, who were holidaying here. These guys are great friends that we had not seen for over a year…and the short hop across from Vietnam to catch up was not to be missed. While we were here we would also take the opportunity to see some of the bits of Hong Kong that we didn’t see when we were here in March for the rugby 7’s.

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We left Hanoi at 7am and did the flight to Kuala Lumpur, hung out at the airport waiting for our connection then did the flight to Hong Kong arriving at about 9pm. Alas we arrived in Hong Kong amidst a furore of protests which centres on the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. Under a new plan, Hong Kong residents would be allowed to vote for chief executive for the first time—but only from candidates approved by Beijing.

These protests are taking place across Hong Kong but are centred in two main areas, being central and Mong Kok (Kowloon side)…the violent clashes, arrests and tear gassing is happening at Mong Kok…our hotel is in Mong Kok…about 80 metres from the centre of the protests. Mike and Patricia are in a much nicer place…about the same distance the other side of the protest. So to catch up…we traverse through the middle of the demonstration each day.

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In reality there are two opposing protests happening simultaneously…this is mostly split across generational lines with the pro-democracy (students) using “occupy” tactics and shutting down the roads in the two main business and shopping districts. And the anti-occupy group which are mostly middle aged business people upset that the occupy tactics have shut down shops for over a week. The peaceful students were being confronted by frustrated business owners, the odd triad roughneck, and the ever present “rent a crowd” agitators (that exist all over the world) which in turn were met by police. During the day this is quite calm, but of an evening this turns into an entirely different prospect.

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We sat one evening having a lovely meal watching hundreds of police (tooled up) filing past our restaurant…in the direction of our hotels. We finished our meals but called an early end to our post meal sip and bunked down for the night…as we listened to the sounds of sirens, shouting and chanting etc into the wee hours. All of this had been going on since the previous weekend…and the key question was how much longer would it be allowed to continue.

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Despite all the goings on, the place was fairly calm and apart from late in the evenings we did not feel uncomfortable or unsafe. We walked calmly down Nathan road (which was a lovely pedestrian walkway thanks to protest road closures), then traversed the mid level escalators, before being caught in a monsoonal downpour. The next day headed out to the world’s oldest continually operating yum-cha restaurant for breakfast, hit the Dr Sun Yat Sen museum, checked out the maritime defence museum and generally ate and drank and enjoyed each other’s company and catching up after so long.

We then headed off on a bus to the opposite side of the island to Stanley a former pirate port and one time (1842) pseudo capital before the British moved it to the current site. A lovely day traversing over the mountains and wandering along the peninsula and having lunch by the seaside. The highlight of the day was watching Mike haggle with both the shop keeper and his own wife simultaneously.

IMG_3199In short the starting price was 200, Mike offered 120, the shopkeeper refused so Mike said he would go somewhere else…

Let the games begin

Mike kicked in with all of the long standing haggling tools of the trade such as threatening to walk away, being generally disinterested in the item, and claiming the price was just too high…

Enter Patricia…who chimed in with…but that is a good price, it is the same as that Asian guy before you paid…so…

Mike offered more, the shop keeper counter offered, Mike started to walk away…Patricia pulled Mike back and told him that he should give the shop keeper an extra 20…This happened about 3 times…Mike tried valiantly to haggle but it was 2 against 1 and every tactic he employed Patricia countered…the shop keeper was laughing…Mike was whipped…he ended up paying 180.

After we had eaten lunch he stopped at a different shop and bought something else…but by this time he had lost his mojo…he paid the sticker price, no haggling, no negotiation… He just meekly handed over the cash…a beaten man.

The next couple of days was spent being tourists, eating yum cha and having a nice little sip. We somehow managed to pick close to the clearest days (smog wise) to go to the top of Victoria peak and were able to get some relatively clear shots of Hong Kong from on high. We were warned to go early as the tram ride to the top gets packed…and boy was that good advice. We headed up early, had coffees overlooking the city, poked around at the top, had lunch on the summit and took the tram down. At this point we were met with the lines that we would have faced had we done the yum cha breakfast that we were going to do first.


From here we headed to the nunnery and the park which had some of the most impressive bonsais and topiaries on the planet. A slow wander around the park and a great day was had by all. Cap this off with cheese, sushi, bubbles, red wine, beers and gin and tonic in their room…and all was good and time for Jill and I to traverse the midnight protestor crowd.

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We caught up with Jeanette (not sure of the spelling) a long time friend of Mike’s who has been living and working in HK for 17 years. She lives off the main island, on Lamma Island, a short ferry ride away. So on her day off (we learnt that in HK they do 6 day weeks of about 54 hours) we hit the ferry to Lamma Island for a catch up. On what was her only break for the week she was the perfect host, taking us to a great yum cha on the island. We did the one hour hike to the other side where we settled in to the breezy Oceanside restaurant for drinks and pleasant conversation. After sampling several less than auspicious ales we got a ferry back to the big island and then out to an award winning restaurant for dinner that evening.

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And our catch up was over…a last minute souvenir shop at the local markets gave Mike one last chance to redeem his haggling mojo while shopping for trinkets. He had done fairly well reducing a starting price of 180 down to a final price of 100. A short distance further on I asked how he had gone and then tried to see if I could match his negotiated price…I asked how much…and she started at 100. We exchanged looks and chose not to keep playing this game and walked away with the sound of the woman shouting lower and lower numbers at us with each step. Nothing more was said on the matter.

Mojo not restored…we continued for a last meal and a couple of beers and rued the fact that we had not seen each other for so long. Moments like this week have reminded us that friends are those people that we choose to allow into our lives. We have chosen well.



China an overview


Well the time has finally come to leave China and move on to the next leg of our little adventure. I guess it is time to take stock of what we have done, where we have been and run through the highlights and lowlights of the time spent in China. We are actually not entirely finished as we will be back in Hong Kong in October and may pop into Macao for a day or two depending upon how the other plans go.

Overall our time in China has been fantastic and I would highly recommend this as a tourist destination for any of you. There are some myths about needing mandarin to travel in China which are quite frankly totally wrong. After a cumulative 7 months full time here we would be lucky to know 20-30 words and have been completely off the beaten path where no English is spoken. The Chinese people are really helpful and a couple of bits of technology gets you through most binds (see Jill’s travel tips section).

So in summary we spent –

205 – Days in China
50 – Cities slept in (more visited or day tripped)
25 – Provinces visited (of 32)
China Map

We have been discussing our best and worst bits and came up with very little on the negative side with the overall impression being ridiculously positive. The other thing we tried to do was to develop a must see itinerary for those seeking to travel here. China however is like Australia and the distances and travel times make seeing everything impossible unless you have unlimited time (there are still things that we missed out on and want to see).

The other thing that stumped us was that some of the must sees (Terracotta Warriors and 3 Gorges Cruise etc.) were some of the least impressive things that we have been to…but how can you really come here and not see them…so despite being so-so I guess they remain must sees. They were ok and it is nice to say that we have been but there is so much better to see in China and if time were limited (which it almost always will be) there are much better places to go.

The other thing was that Jill and I liked different things. She has turned into a mountain goat while here, relishing the stair climbs (that are everywhere)…while I have gone the other way cursing stairs at every opportunity. Obviously there are some things that were awesome for both of us. The Great Wall of China is an absolute must and the best spot is the Mutianyu section (about 60kms outside of Beijing). The other thing that must be done is getting into some of the provinces. Each minority of China is quite different and these differences should be experienced. So here it is…

Traditional Must Sees

The Great Wall of China
Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square
The summer palace
Gate of heavenly peace
Mao’s Tomb
Walled cities
Hanging Monastery
The terracotta Warriors
3 gorges dam
Tibet ?

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Most of these are easy to achieve from Beijing with limited travel times and this could be done in a two week stint if you push a little bit. The warriors is a quick pop across to Xian where the Muslim quarter is a must. Xian is a walled city but Jill’s suggestions are that Pingyao and Datong are better examples and from Datong you can also see the hanging monastery and Yúngāng Caves..head down and out through Shanghai and all of this within the two week journey.

Tibet is a whole other issue. There seems to be a global interest in Tibet given the Dalai Lama scenario but having been there we would never return. The Everest leg was nice and something we will no doubt brag about down the track but way too difficult to be worth the 2 hour photo shoot that we got. Especially given that a lot of the time it is clouded over and you don’t get a nice view (we were blessed with perfect weather). The food was terrible but the road between Lhasa and Shigatse was the highlight but it is a tough schlepp and should not be taken lightly.

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Lesser known gems

These are the things that do not immediately come to mind when you think of China but having been there and experienced them they are VERY high on both of our lists. We would do almost all of these before the last 3 on the earlier list…but they are less famous.

Guilin to Yangshou river rafting
Jiuzhaigou – Jiuzhai national park with blue lakes and waterfalls everywhere
Harbin – ice festival
Kunming – Stone forest
Kashgar – livestock market
Chengdu – panda breeding centre + giant Buddha at Leshan

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This list of places will probably not make an initial itinerary however were really nice spots to either kick back or enjoy a lesser paced time getting to know the real China or seeing sights in a less hectic manner. Nice if you have heaps of time but sadly will be missed by most.

Dali – walled city
Dandong – North Korean border
Shanhaiguan – wall meets ocean + first mountain pass
Mountains – Wutaishan, Mianshan, Taishan,
Xiahe – monastery (more Tibetan than Tibet)
Anshun – biggest waterfall in China
Hohhot – Inner Mongolia
Hangzhou – west lake
Shangri-la – mini Tibet

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After this there were a bunch of cities that we stayed in that we found to be totally charming and full of the local Chinese culture and lifestyle but not necessarily likely to get a tourist visit. We would go back to them as we had a really good time eating, drinking and mingling with the locals. Places like Xining where we relaxed after the Tibet ordeal, or Yinchuan where they had 20 quai massages and free street theatre, or Guangzhou where we lazed eating super cheap food in a street that turned into restaurantville after dark.


You need to speak Chinese – rubbish…almost every Chinese person you meet will try and help you as much as they can. If you have a smile and a nice attitude you will never go wrong. A translator app on your phone and a dictionary style app like Pleco will get you through every drama.
Don’t eat the street food – rubbish…this is the tastiest, cheapest and best food to eat in China. It is clean, and turned over so frequently that most of the time it will be made in front of you. There is tourist food with snakes, bugs and scorpions etc but these are mostly for show and photographs. The every day stuff is fine.
China is dangerous – rubbish…be aware of your surroundings, as you always should be in any country, and you will feel and be safer than you would on any Australian street.

The bad bits

The absolute epitome of all things that are wrong with China exist and are openly displayed by one group especially…The Dama. This is not to say that these traits are not widely available but the Chinese Aunties (or Dama) are the group that has embraced or inherited all that is wrong with China. They are by no means the cause of it…but when looking at the offensive behaviour that exists in China…7 out of 10 times you will see it displayed by one of these aunties.

By night they are happy middle aged women dancing in the parks and public spaces (pissing off the locals with the loud music but amusing the tourists). But during the day they are the phlegm spelunking, bodily fluid hacking, phone yelling, street blocking, child pissing, line ignoring, elbow throwing, crowd pushing group that is oblivious to and ignorant of all those around them.

In a newspaper rant the Chinese papers tried to explain the attitude claiming that … Growing up during the Chinese revolution these Dama worked hard and didn’t enjoy good life when they were young; they only tried their best to save money. Now their children have grown up. With retirement pensions, they have more free time and money to spend on their own life. This explains some of it but not all.

The older generation has some of the worst Chinese traits, the younger generation has reasonably few of them…but the Dama…the Chinese baby boomer equivalents are shockers. And they are mostly women…probably because the men had chain smoked themselves into an early grave. The middle group that is the Dama is atrocious and the worst China has to see and offer.

But the future is bright. The current generation is influenced by the poor examples set and is revolting against this. They are more polite, more aware that other people exist, and less likely to hock bodily fluids around the streets. There is still a long way to go…yelling still takes place and the ignorance of those around them remains high. Smoking will be the next hurdle to be fought as it is impossible to go anywhere without being swamped by cigarette smoke (despite no smoking signs everywhere). No meal can be eaten without half the restaurant firing up after their food.

A Snapshot

Once again we will finish on a selection of thumbnails of our favourite moments…needless to say after 7 months there are too many to try and put on our little post. If anybody is thinking of a trip here we would be happy to provide any advice or share any insights we may have that may help your planning.

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Last minute thoughts

China has recently introduced 72 hour Visa free cities…20 of them in total. This presents the perfect opportunity for stopover tasters as you head to other destinations. Guilin is one of these and was my favourite spot…72 hrs would be enough time to fly in, poke around, crash, take the raft to Yangshou, poke around, crash then return to Guilin for the flight out. This was debatably our best day and certainly one of our best days in China.

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And the adventure continues…


Beijing – The last two weeks in China

We rode the train into Beijing for what was to be our last two weeks in China. The main reason for being here is to get visas to go to other countries that we are headed towards…while also giving Jill enough time to get a head start on some assignments that she needs to do for her Masters. As we were making our plans we learnt that my cousin Andrew would be in town for a one week work trip so plans were made to catch up. This was quite a funny experience as we have seen each other about twice in the last decade in Australia but ended up spending heaps of time together in Beijing.

He was being hosted by Frank…the dean of the university…who was happy to let us join in on the festivities…but would not allow us to contribute to any of the costs. Frank, Andy and the local crew worked all day and (when available) in the evenings we hooked up for about 19 dishes each night. Despite being incapable of eating all of the food…Frank would not let the guests starve…or contribute. Andy was almost dying as he was subjected to Frank’s over ordering for lunch as well.

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Don’t get me wrong the food was magnificent and Frank happily picked up the tab for all concerned (including us). But he would order about twice as much as anybody could reasonably ingest. After our last night eating with them…Jill did not ingest any food for the next 40 hours. On the Friday we headed off to the Great Wall to the Mutianyu section. While we had already been there it is by far the best of the sections and Andrew’s lot was taking us.

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We were in Beijing and made our first trip to the Vietnamese embassy to apply for our visa which was remarkably simple but required submitting our passport for the week. We had a blue sky day so tried to climb the mountain at the end of the forbidden city for the panorama Beijing shot (for those that remember right back to when we started this). Alas the clouds rolled in by the time sunset was due so we didn’t get the photo but we did the nighttime walk around Tiananmen Square.

The other thing of note was that my backpack had been beaten and bashed along the journey and required some maintenance as the plastic clips had snapped and there was a few scuff marks etc. Having spent the money on good packs (Osprey backpacks) this too was very simple. I sent an email advising them I needed a repair, they asked for photos, I sent them, they agreed to replace the bag. That simple.

What was not simple on the other hand was the logistics of getting the correct bag from Shanghai to Beijing in the time frame when we were there. The language barrier was a major issue to our communications but the intent behind all of this on behalf of osprey was good as they really tried hard to fix the issue. The first parcel was a smaller backpack and had to be returned. The other issue was getting a clear answer of what to do with the old pack. After much to and fro it eventually got sorted.

While in Beijing I made contact with a former colleague who was now working at the Australian embassy here in Beijing and arrangements were made to catch up. He invited us to Friday night drinks at the embassy and a Peking duck dinner with his wife and a few embassy staff directly afterwards. This was accompanied by an invitation to watch the Bledisloe Cup rugby with the New Zealand embassy staff the next night.

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Jill settled in to her studies while I killed time and prepared a summary of our time here in China for the blog. On our second last day we got to catch up with Cindy (the Canadian Chinese girl we were in Tibet with) for a great lunch. We got some trinkets for the guys we would meet in Sri Lanka (met them in a hostel in Guilin) and basically ate and drank our way through the last little bit in China. We will be returning to Hong Kong in October to catch up with mike and Patricia but our China adventure is coming to an end.

There will be one final summary China post with an overview of where we have been and the highlights and lowlights of our time here…doing the maths on things here got pretty big pretty quickly…and it is fair to say that we have experienced China more so than most would ever do…and we still want more.

Shanhaiguan and back to Beijing

Our departure from Harbin and transit to Shanhaiguan was one of the best we have ever had. The train was clean, quiet, fast and without the usual dramas associated with Chinese transits. No spitting, no yelling into phones, no standing room sold between the seats, no kids peeing on the floor or women vomiting. The trip lasted 7 hours but was entirely uneventful and was peaceful and truly pleasant.

We got off in Shanhaiguan to find ourselves in the google maps limbo that sometimes happens…this means our hotel was somewhere between 200 metres and 6 kilometres from the train station. We were near the main drag and our hotel number was at number 118 of that drag…how far could it really be…especially when we get to the road and find we are at number 36. So we started to walk…for no known reason it ended up being another 5.4 kilometres before we reached the hotel. All of this with Jill carrying an 18 kg backpack plus 6 kilo day bag while recovering from her cooties…while I was hatching my own personal batch of cooties and carting a 23 kg backpack and 5-6 kilo day bag.

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The location where the wall meets the Bohai Sea is nicknamed Old Dragon’s Head. Since arriving in China this was one of the main things that I wanted to see as I had been told how stunning a sight it was. While the wall was spectacular the experience however was not. The old dragons head is a relatively small place but with a huge number of visitors all fighting for room on the peninsula of wall over the water. Add to this the ignorance and belligerence of most Chinese tourists and the experience was hellish that just needed to be got through so you could get the cool photos.

Having left the wall meeting the ocean we hopped a bus to the old walled city which was built as a tourist thing but really never got developed beyond the central streets running N/S and E/W. The rest was pretty much run down, vacant and dishevelled. Having walked through we got to the other side and started climbing the hill as the other thing here is the first mountain pass of the wall.

Unlike the ocean end the mountain pass on the other hand was fantastic. It was on the opposite side of the city and the Chinese tourists generally do not believe in hiking to see anything…If you cannot be delivered to the door in an electric cart, then they will not go… This meant that we had the place largely to ourselves as opposed to the hoards at the dragons head. There was the odd bus load of Russian tourists but they were easy and hassle free.

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Alas the next day my cooties had taken full effect and I was the one in need of a day laying up. A down day and then hopped the bus to the train station for our return to Beijing. We had almost reached the end of our China odyssey…Two weeks in Beijing and we would be leaving.


Leaving Seoul we could have done a 90 minute flight direct to Harbin but instead we chose to do a 10 hour transit through Shanghai…for the same price. This may seem insane but on our first visit to Shanghai we were unaware of the Maglev…and have been kicking ourselves that we missed it. For the uninitiated…the Maglev is the super-fast train that runs between the airport and close to the city. During our time in China we have been on the 200 and 300 kilometre an hour trains but the Maglev goes at over 400…well over. IMG_2440

So we flew from Seoul to Shanghai…hopped the Maglev, had some lunch, then hopped the Maglev back to the airport for the flight to Harbin. The train maxed out at 431 kilometres an hour…when we hopped the train to head back we saw the front where the slower animals did not or could not get out of the way of this racing beast. Needless to say that there were more than squished bugs on the windshield.


Harbin originally started in 1897 as a camp for Russian engineers surveying the Trans-Siberian Railway. This has grown into China’s northernmost major city, with 4 million in the city and up to 10 million if you include the suburbs. Harbin is the home of the harbin brewery the oldest and 4th largest brewery in China. But in reality Harbin is two cities…the summer and the winter.


We obviously are here for the summer so we get to experience the magic that is mid to high 20’s temperatures, pleasant breezes, sunshine and a town that is as green as any that China has to offer. Zhongyang Dajie is the 1.4 km Pedestrian only street running down to the river and Stalin Park (and is only one street parallel to where we are staying). This is a really pretty shopping and ambling district that is heavily influenced by the Russian history with Babushka dolls and firs everywhere you look.
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Having reached the end of the pedestrian street we wandered along the riverside to the gondola for a ride across the river to the huge park on the opposite bank. There is a Russian town inside the park with shows and shops celebrating and selling all things Russian. The village contains a bunch of concrete babushka dolls with the Russian leaders painted upon them…The most beautiful sight in all of Harbin is St Sophia’s cathedral which is a Russian built church in the middle of town which is entirely stunning. To be fair…the architecture all around Harbin is heavily influenced by its Russian history and is built in baroque or byzantine style with spires and cupolas all over the place.

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Harbin is also the site of the Unit 731 museum which is a museum outlining the actions of unit 731 which was (wiki quote) “a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II”. We did not make it here as it was a fair bit out of the way but it does sound like one hell of a museum.Harbin is without a doubt the king of hedge art…there are hedge topiaries dotted throughout the city that are quite frankly amazing.

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It also has the Siberian tiger preserve that is not for the faint hearted or obsessive animal lover. Within the preserve there are hundreds of Siberian tigers in a safari style setting. Wiki tells me that “the park has an area of 1,440,000 square meters (355.8 acres) and is the largest natural park for wild Siberian tigers in the world at IMG_0541present. There are over 500 purebred Siberian tigers here, with 100 visible to visitors. In addition, visitors can also see white tigers, lions, lynx, leopards, and black pumas as well as Bengali tigers”.

And for a relatively small fee you can purchase live animals that will be fed to the tigers while you watch…a chicken can be bought for about $8, a duck or a pheasant for double this and raw meat too.  Visitors can buy poultry or animals to feed them. Park employees will set the living animal free among the tigers, and visitors can see the unique live action of tigers preying upon it. Previous visitors talk of watching tigers leap through the air as the pheasant tries to fly away…in vain. This purchasing goes to the point where you can purchase a live sheep or cow which will be dumped in the midst of hungry tigers…all while you watch on. Alas the bride got crook on the day we were to see the tiger park so we missed this.


In January Harbin’s temperatures plummet with overnight temps of up to minus 36 with daytime highs of minus 12. The Songhua River that we floated above in the gondola freezes solid and you can walk across it. During winter Harbin becomes the home of the ice and snow festival which lasts over a month. As we are not here for winter I will shamelessly poach some information and pictures and info from the net to give you a sense of what goes on here.

During the festival 2–3 feet thick crystal clear blocks of ice are cut from the frozen river and artists create large buildings and sculptures made entirely of ice. This is generally done on sun island (the leafy green park we strolled through which is turned into a sea of white. Of an evening it becomes “Ice and Snow World” that operates each night with lights switched on, illuminating the sculptures from both inside and outside.

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In summary Harbin in summer is a delight and is absolutely well worth doing…sadly we had limited time and Jill got a case of the lurgies and was laid up and we did not get to some of the major sights…if you could abide the extremely cold temperatures…the winter festival looks absolutely stunning and both Jill and I have determined this would be a definite bucket list item.


We did dalian in two blocks with a side trip to Dandong in between.


Dalian was the site of the 16th international beer festival that Jill found advertised way back in March. She made the bookings for travel and accommodation at the intercity hotel back in April. This was all going swimmingly until she tried to amend the booking to factor in our trip to Dandong. At this point the hotel realised that we were booked in for under 200 yuan a night, when the going (extortionate) rate for this week was well over triple that…they then advised us that they were overbooked and could not and would not accommodate us.

Jill (rightfully) went off. The hotel refused to honour the booking that was made over 3 months ago and relet our room for the massively inflated gouging rate and would not honour an existing booking. Needless to say complaints were lodged with the tourist bureau but this vent is to make it fairly public that this particular Chinese hotel is money grubbing and has zero business ethics. Thankfully the booking was made through who copped an earful from Jill who refused to accept less or pay more. They were very accommodating and eventually found us something but they had to pick up the cost difference due to the immoral actions of the intercity hotel.

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Dalian was one of those cities that through various wars was under the rule of a number of different nations. As such it has some nice Russian style architecture but has little else to it apart from the parks and squares. Which are ok without being startling or all that different from most Chinese public spaces. It is a city of over 6 million people and is a major port and industrial centre. The one real standout to Dalian has been the food streets. Our introduction to this was in the heart of town where we came across a series of alleys winding between buildings and malls that stretched for about 3 kilometres.

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The first this we spotted was a huge tray of red claw…now we knew that this is a favourite of Jim (Jill’s Dad) and looking down over this tray made us both immediately think of Jim and his red claw stories. In honesty the amount of chilli in the Chinese red claw would be too much for him (and most others) but I found them really tasty. As you walked along the array of food got more varied with each step. Almost any type of seafood you can imagine add to this the ever present meat on a stick options and the broiling pigs heads, feet, innards and other bits.

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On our return after Dandong we circumnavigated the beer festival which was being held in Xinghai park which is possibly the largest park/square in all of Asia. The first thing that struck us was the sheer size of this thing. We saw the huge (and I really mean huge) beer tent then turned to the left and right only to find that this tent was one of about 20 such tents. The festival was set to go for 12 days and with the size of this thing I can see how.

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We entered the festival in the early afternoon after paying the $5 entrance fee. As we lined up we were surprised to see that in China this was a family affair with mothers, kids, grandparents all lining up for what, in Australia, would be a male dominated, adults only drunk fest. The next difference was the food. The festival had a huge range of really good, really healthy food options…so much so that you saw 5 food stalls for every beer outlet. There were the usual items and some non typical fare such as the crocodile skewers (pictured below) and the amazing use of the cow carcasses after they had been stripped bare and consumed over the preceding days of the festival.

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The food was like you may see in any Chinese city with full meals of many varieties, dumplings, rice, noodles, BBQ stick options and the normal snacky bits. The prices were obviously higher than you would pay outside but not excessively so. The beer prices were seriously ramped up with 40 yuan the going rate for a 500ml bottle or glass (bear in mind you can buy these in the supermarket for between 3 and 9 yuan. Having been drinking low alcohol Chinese beers for quite a while now we settled into the beers from the Europeans…particularly the Germans and the Czechs. These were generally ok but the ordering off Chinese menus with no English meant we were playing a bit of beer lucky dip.

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As we entered each of the beer company tents we found hundreds of tables and a big stage where different entertainment options were on display. This brings us to our next major difference between a Chinese and western event. Most of the entertainment was an organised form of karaoke with a performer belting out Chinese tunes over the top of a soundtrack.

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Some had a little more style with Chinese plate twirlers, another with a great magician show, and one with a US quartet doing lady gaga covers backed up by the worst Chinese dancers ever put on a stage. These girls were not dancers but were basically thrown on stage in skimpy (ish) outfits and told to shake it…it was like watching a train wreck. But most of the entertainment involved overweight minor local celebrities singing along badly with a karaoke track and yelling loudly into microphones.

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The reason for the trip to Dandong was twofold…firstly it is the site of the easternmost point of the Great Wall of China and secondly it is the border between China and North Korea. As we are unable to visit North Korea we figured we would turn up an peer across the Yalu River towards the North Korean town of Sinuiju. The Yalu Jiang Duan Qiao (bridge) goes halfway across the river…right beside the “friendship” bridge. The bridge was bombed and shot up during the Korean War and the remainder was disassembled by the Koreans.

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We arrived late in the afternoon after a 6 hr bus ride from Dalian. We had limited time in town and we knew we were off to see the Great Wall the next day so we headed out in the light rain to see the bridge. Within an hour the light rain turned into a torrential monsoon. We have been incredibly lucky this trip and have basically had perfect (ish) weather for almost 10 months now. We had one downpour as we hiked up the Taal volcano in the Philippines and we had the evening in Dandong.

We got back to the hotel and not one part of either of us was dry. Our waterproof gear was no match for the downpour…waterproof boots are useless against torrents of water running down your legs and filling them up. Umbrellas once turned inside out by wind do little to protect you…and the rain blowing sideways, by said wind, finds the bits that may normally escape falling rain. The real issue came the next morning when I tried to take a photograph only to find my phone was waterlogged and the images were more smoggy than a Qingdao day.

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The next morning the rain had stopped and we headed to the bus station to get ourselves to the Hushan Great Wall section (Tiger Mountain Great Wall) which is 25 km northeast of Dandong. This section travels parallel to river along the North Korean border and from the wall you look across to North Korea. The border here is a 3 foot high, 3 strand barbed wire fence across about a 3 metre wide creek. You could throw a rock and hit the other side. The North Korean guardhouses are visible in the distance. While it would have been possible to run over and hop the fence… there were warnings against this…and quite frankly the North Koreans are not renowned for their sense of humour…so we looked…and moved on.

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The wall, as the name suggests, was yet another damn mountain. Jill being a reborn mountain goat revelled in the stairs while I chanted my (now regular) mantra of “I f#€%en hate stairs. Within the last month we have climbed about 7 different mountains and quite frankly I am over it. We should both be a lot skinnier than we are with this many stairs. And these stairs were the steepest we have come across thus far.

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The wall was nice, with the mountain goat hike up one side and the (believe it or not) even steeper descent on the other side to a small museum. Then the hike around the bottom of the mountain back to the starting point. A bus back to Dandong and then we spent the afternoon checking out the bridges in the daylight, without the rain.

There is a North Korean restaurant in town where the waitresses are dressed like flight attendants, a rock music backed opera singer show and ordinary food. We thought about it purely for the experience but came to the decision that life is too short to knowingly and willing go to a restaurant where you will be served bad food. the picture below shows the right bank of the river being the developed China and the left bank being flat rural North Korea.

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Jinan and Taishan


Ok…so the number one reason for coming to Jinan was the money…Chinese currency has images of famous places on each of the notes. Our introduction to this was when we were in Guilin rafting down the Li river past the lumps. The guide pointed out that the picture on the 20 yuan note was the lumps over our shoulder. Pretty cool really. Then we got to Tibet and found that the Potala palace was the image on the 50 yuan note. A bit of research revealed the following:

1 RNB – Xihu lake – Hangzhou – been there
5 RNB – Mt Taishan – Jinan – here now
10 RNB – 3 gorges – been there
20 RNB – karsts (lumps) – Guilin – been there
50 RNB – Potala palace – Lhasa – been there
100 RNB – great hall of the people – Beijing – been there

It was the only one we had missed…so we really had to come. When we were in Shangrila we were having dinner on our last night and a lonely Chinese lad turned up and was sitting by himself so we asked him to join us. He described his name for us as “batman inside me like a clown”… after laughing possibly more than I should have we decided that the translator was playing tricks…as it turns out his name was Heath…and it was a Heath Ledger reference that turned out really funny. Anyway there had been the odd email traffic since then and we had stayed in touch.

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Heath had moved from Beijing to Jinan and just had to meet up with us again and host us while we were in town. Which he did…and did brilliantly. After a catch up and a beer in the room we headed out to see the sights around town. The first stop was the Baotu Springs. Jinan is famous for its artesian springs and there are apparently 72 of them in and around the city. We then hit the big park and square followed by the food street to eat snake and some other goodies. Then on to Black Tiger Spring, the Five Dragon Pool and a bunch of other springs etc.

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The one thing that Heath did that earned himself god-like status was ordered us a local delicacy…that we had already had before in Beijing. It is without doubt Jill’s favourite dish on tour but it was the victim of “Chinglish” on the menu and was only known as Beijing heaving. We had asked and described it to many others along our journey but to no avail…then randomly this dish popped up on our table. For those that care it is called… phonetically “jing jiang ro si” which means Beijing sauce meat shredded. Heath wrote this in Chinese for us and it may well be ordered again…many times.

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It was then Monday and Heath went off to work but we arranged to meet near the food street for dinner. The one thing that has not got a mention is the town…it is in a basin and in summer the breeze does not get in and the humidity cannot escape…it is known as one of the five furnaces of China. We arrived on a 37 degree day with 70+% humidity. It was swelteringly hot and the forecast was for the mercury to get above 40 degrees in the days to come. Talking to Heath he told us that in winter the wind comes from the other way and gets stuck in the basin, swirling and making the place bitterly cold.

We had a lazy start to the day before heading off to the 1000 Buddha mountain. We of course started the journey nearing noon which meant we were climbing the mountain between 1 and 2 pm in the 40 degree heat. Buddhas seen we headed back down the mountain by way of the luge. As it was quiet…there was nobody on the luge but us…Jill hopped on while I took a photo then off she went. I walked back to the luge, got on, waited a while then took off.

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Assuming a level of safety standards…I figured that there was no way to crash…it would just scare you with the extreme speeds…surely the luge can’t fly off the tracks. Assuming these things…I put the throttle to full go…on the fifth corner as I flew off the luge and over the edge of the track…I revised my assumptions. Got back on went full tilt to get speed up again but started using the brakes coming into corners. Turned corner 9 and had to slam on the brakes as I had somehow caught up to Jill…even with my crash.

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So anyway…miss daisy and I then hopped a bus to get home for a shower. Couldn’t get the right bus and ended up walking about 3-4 Kms home. The next day we headed up to Mt Taishan (this is actually redundant as Shan means mountain but my brain needs them both for some reason). Taishan was about 38 degrees with 80+% humidity and involved climbing 3000 stairs to get to the half way point where you could get a cable car to the top. It is one of the holy sacred mountains…at about the 1500 stair mark I came to the fairly self evident conclusion… that it was not holy to me.

I stopped, sweated and inhaled water while my wife kept going…she truly should be committed. She claims to have wanted to bail at the 2000-2500 step mark but is too bloody minded to give it up. So she kept going to the cable car. It was a misty day and there was no view so she did not take the cable car to the top…but she can honestly say that she did the long haul of a hike. Having walked the 3000 stairs she then walked back 1500 where she found me relaxing under a tree. At that point we wandered the remaining 1500 stairs back to the bottom together. Jill did over 6000 and I did over 3000 stairs.

My water intake for the day exceeded 8 litres and Jill’s was even higher still…add to this the beers and soft  drinks as the night went on and our fluid intake for the day was something like 15 litres each. Our clothes were soaked with perspiration and we stank. The one hour train ride back to Jinan was uncomfortable and overly aromatic. The shower on our return was as welcome as it was critically needed.

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We had a catch up with Heath at the food street for dinner (I wanted more snake and Jill wanted the Beijing heaving) and we all watched the fountain show. Each night at 8pm the square in the middle of town puts on a fountain show… with music, lights and squirting water etc. All choreographed and timed to the music…just like in Vegas. It goes for 30 mins and is pretty spectacular. The place is packed each night and with good reason.


Leaving Pingyao we had a long but relatively uneventful transit to Qingdao. This was a nice change after a few nightmare transits lately. It was a 6am departure to the train, a couple of hour train journey on another overpacked train, taxi transfer to the airport, a flight to the home of Chinese beer, a bus ride and hike to our accommodation arriving about 12 hours later. Apart from an over zealous security woman at the airport the trip was calm. No baggage dramas, one minor incident of the woman next to me vomiting all over the floor of the train but it was as we were leaving so no real damage done.

We arrived at our accommodation at after 6 pm in 32 degree heat…the hostel was atop a hill at the old observatory which had been converted to a hostel. The roof was the restaurant and we found out it was pasta party night. This meant for $10 a head you could have all the pasta, salads, cold dishes…and beer…that you could eat and drink. Hot, sweaty, and tired we dumped our gear and headed to the roof. We settled into a couch, enjoyed the breeze atop the hill, sipped a refreshing ale (or two) and was fed a credible Chinese attempt at a bolognese pasta.

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Qingdao was voted one of China’s most liveable cities in 2012…in 2014 I think that the smog and pollution may actually outdo Beijing. It is a coastal town so the sea breezes may effect the smog levels but on our arrival from atop the hill you could certainly not see the bay and could barely make out high rise buildings within close proximity. We actually spent 4 nights here and got a vaguely smoggy day on one of the days where you could see a grey looking bay…as opposed to the extremely smoggy days where you could see nothing.

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We went on our usual hike around town…on a 37 degree day…with 90+% humidity. Stopped at the train station at noon to get our tickets out of town and slowly melted into the floor of the railway station. As we passed the church we came across a bunch of Chinese brides being photographed in western wedding garb. They were everywhere. We stood in one spot in the square and started counting…by the time we left the number was over 30… on a 37 degree smoggy day.  Based on this trek around town it became clear that the usual efficiency of Chinese cities did not exist here in Qingdao. The pieces were there but they did not connect together like they normally do in other Chinese cities.

While hiking around Jill took photos of high-rises from street level and was unable to get a view of anything above the 5th floor. After this we hopped the bus and went to “beer street”…in beer street is the Tsing Tao beer museum and a street full of restaurants with large beer kegs everywhere you look. We went through the museum and then settled into a bar across the street for a sip and a bite to eat.

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We hooked up with Molly the Chicago nanny who is training to be a nurse who was struggling her way through ordering from a Chinese menu so she joined us. Hours later after not being able to get a cab home, she came back to the hostel and waited for her nannying boss to come and pick her up. While we waited we sat on the roof of the hostel having beers until her boss arrived and also joined us on the roof for beer.

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While it was pasta night on arrival…there was a different food option each night of the week…we skipped paella night and ate dumplings at one of the local restaurants instead…after our beer museum day we found it was burger night and our last night was rib night. Quite frankly $10 a head for all you can eat and drink was just too good to turn down…the fact that the food was of pretty good quality just made for easy decision making.

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Qingdao was an hot, humid, obscenely polluted city that was shrouded in smog and mist almost the whole time we were there. We headed down to the pier at noon and had about 20 meters visibility…so much so that you could not see the water until you were almost on top of it. We were told by locals that this time of year is particularly bad but that at other times the sky is crystal clear…I will have to take their word for this…as our experience was that of a dirty, polluted city whose infrastructure was not coping with the population.

Pingyao and Mianshan

Oh my god…real China…not the new fake version. Lets not be silly here…there are still lots of new shiny and plastic things…but the place has some real about it. The city walls are weathered, with bricks missing, the walls are not gun barrel straight but curve with the natural landscape, the buildings are old and while the street surface is newly repaved the rest of the place is relatively like it once may have been. Some of the buildings have been renovated but most have not. The renovated buildings now contain the trinket shops, bars and restaurants but just a street back and the world gets very real.

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Pingyao has many tourist buildings, temples and sights contained within the city walls and have sensibly made the decision to include them all in a one off entry price which is valid for three days. You can (mostly) walk the 6.5 kilometre lap around the city walls but get stuck at one section due to renovation and  have to backtrack to the south gate. This added quite a bit extra onto our hike in the sun but amazingly a cold beer fixed all of this once we stopped. Part of the town is commercialised and hugely overpriced while two doors down you will find a place that is authentic and very cheap.

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We went to some temples etc around the city and hit some restaurants along the way before heading off on an organised tour run by the hostel to the Mianshan Mountain area. This too is an area that is incredibly real and authentic…immediately followed by the now ubiquitous Chinese sideshow. An hour or so drive out of town you reach one of the most naturally stunning areas that has simultaneously had added to it trashy statues and theme park style attractions.  Stunning natural waterfalls and pools in the river have had statues of dogs squirting water from their mouths…large ponds have inflatable boats etc for kids to crash into each other while being overlooked by two large shiny dragons that have inexplicably been perched atop the waterfall.

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The Mianshan Mountain area contains dozens of Buddhist and Taoist temples, many built more than 1,000 years ago… alas they sit atop steep staircases. So to visit and admire the sights you will walk a lot and climb  some serious stairs. Intermittently there are chair lifts, elevators and cable cars to help you out but if you want to see things there is no way to avoid the climbing and hiking. I used the services of these aids every chance I got paying a small price to avoid obscene exertion…my wife on the other hand…wanted to walk the stairs. The main instance involved me sitting in a cable car and waving while Jill and others in the group did a 40 minute stair climb up a mountain (about 2000 stairs).

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Having climbed to the top of some of these peaks and walking along the ridge between peaks (the whole area stretches for about 12 kilometres) you often find yourselves high on the mountain with temples perched ever further up with ridiculous stair climbs still to do. Stairs bolted to the sides of cliffs, poking out of walls above rivers with chains to hang onto so as to avoid falling in. Needless to say Jill has become the stair queen while I chant what is quickly turning into my regular theme “I f$*#en hate stairs”.

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Mianshan is stunningly beautiful but offensively themeparked. The old temples are lovely but you really have to work the stairs to get to them, the nature is fantastic but has been partially spoilt by the Chinese need to make things new and shiny. Concrete water buffalos, frogs, rabbits, deer, dragons and crocodiles were all part of what you will find while traversing a pretty mountain stream cascading over natural waterfalls.

For all the plastic China that is here…Pingyao is one of the most authentic Chinese towns that we have come across. There has been renovation (as there must be) and some of it has been in keeping with that which once was..while other bits has been to the taste of the Chinese tourist. We have been told that every Chinese town reinvents itself every 8-10 years so everything will change. The preservation of the historical elements will hopefully be done in keeping with the original…otherwise China runs the risk of turning itself into a Disney style theme park within a generation.

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