Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hong Kong, the final adventure.

All neon like

In another 4 days I'm going home. It is about 9am and I've just getting into Shenzhen off a terrible over night bus trip, even though all over night bus rides are. I'm dropped off at a random bus stop on a highway and told to get on a the number seven. I do, but I don't have a clue where to get off. With my keen travellers eye I eventually see a sign out on the side of the road for a subway station, bingo! I jump off and go to my hostel I'm staying at for the night, a lovely new place out in the suburbs somewhere.

The sad Orangutan at the zoo, so lonely

Shenzhen is right on the border to Hong Kong, and is a special economic zone set up purposefully on the border of China to stimulate economic growth. One of the major benefits of this is it is a great place for shopping. Being on the border of Hong Kong means it is very accessible, and being in China proper means things are awesomely cheap. Having only to travel another 50 odd kilometres with a backpack to the Hong Kong airport meant I was willing to fill that backpack to the brim with the latest fashions. I spent the day exploring dodgy shopping malls, getting some of the best deals in the world. Floors of fakes for basically any price you can be confident enough in asking for. Using the 'take my price or I'll walk out the door' method I achieved some pretty descent deals.

Merry Christmas everyone

In the morning I headed across the border to Hong Kong. It was bizarre how different the place is, only being 30 odd km from Shenzhen. Instantly you notice the large mix of cultures, the english speaking people, and the much higher prices. I picked one of the cheapest places in town to stay at, the travellers friendship hostel. It was very different to Chinese hostels, there were basically only a few tiny rooms in some large cheap apartment block. Not really a great place to hang out, it made up for it by being right down on tip of the Kowloon Peninsula so is super convenient to everything.

All the new gears in the smallest hostel room ever

View out of the hostel window, spectacular....

I had three nights to kill before the big departure home. In this time I did lots, but some of the highlights were....

Gold fish for sale!

Probably the first thing everyone does in Hong Kong is go and view the city from the top of Victoria Hill. I went with a young German man from the hostel, and being both on the cheap we skipped the logical option of taking the cable car up and instead walked. This was a pretty good option as meant we would go past the Hong Kong Zoo, and go through a bit of back door nature before getting to the top. Once up there we went for a walk on the circular route around the top of the hill, giving one of the most magnificent city views available. The high rises of Hong Kong are incredible, all 6,439 of them, and viewing them from up here was spectacular, the only issue being the grey haze over the city, but I'm sure one day they'll sort that out.

View from Victoria Peak, really sweet, although a little grey

Where all the jerks shop

The next awesome activity was seeing the same cityscape from back across the harbour at 8pm every night for the big light show that goes on. This is kinda over the top, but I enjoyed it enough to come back three times to see it. After showing some people back in New Zealand a video of the light show, they suggested that it was an incredible waste of energy. This is probably true, and seeing Hong Kong is mainly powered by gas and coal and a little wind power reducing this spectacular event would probably be a step in reducing the grey shroud covering the 6,439 high rises.

Best view in the city at 8pm every night

There were a few other important things I needed to do before going home, firstly I had to fill the remainder of my bag with souvenirs and then had to get rid of the remaining hong kong money I had on me. Along with my German friend while he was still in town, soon to be screwed over by the protests at the Bangkok International Airport, we went to the night market in Kowloon for a feed and some shopping. This was a great way to spend my last night in town, and was topped off by drinking a beer in the streets which must have been illegal but the German didn't know any better. Plus it was much cheaper than the bar the night before, even with a free beer from a man claiming that the hottest women on the planet are from Colombia.

The tram ride out to the 'burbs

Now my last day away, tomorrow I will be back in New Zealand. Having travelled over a quarter of the way around the world over land and going through three huge nations that have only become accessible to westerners in the last two decades, and not to forget the handful of smaller European countries. But today I just wanted to get it over and done with. Unfortunately my flight wasn't until 10pm so spent the day riding the tram over on Hong Kong Island on a mission to get to a beach, in the hope to possibly go for a swim. Feeling like I was on The Amazing Race, I took the tram right to the end of the line then ran as far as I could to get to the ocean. Unfortunately I was still a while from where I had planned on going, but did make it to the sea. And that there was the last adventure I was to have. From there I turned around and headed back to the hostel to collect my bags and go to the airport, wait around for my flight, then go home.

One of the star ferries make a voyage before sun set

The joy of Hong Kong airport is that you get to go over the world longest bridge on the way there

Soon enough I was back in New Zealand, unfortunately without my bag which got lost in Australia, but luckily it did eventually make it and I was safe at home and all adventure over.

Ah... home time!

Complete Trip Costs:
China/Hong Kong for a month, including transport, accomodation, food, expenses etc: NZ$1747
Total trip cost for 3 months of outrageous adventure: NZ$9677

Post Trip Analysis:
After travelling round the world for three months to some pretty exotic locations. I feel it necessary to express my view on the world and on travelling. In doing this adventure I found a purpose for life, having the goal of getting somewhere in which the journey would be a massive challenge meant I felt truly alive nearly every day. There were times when I'd have liked to been able to give up, but pressing through to achieve my goals made it very fulfilling. This is why I'd recommend to anyone with the choice of either selling out and buying a house and setting up a mundane life or to go on a wild adventure to definitely choose the later. And I guarantee you won't regret being able to reflect on that decision later in life.

The form of tourism I participated in was not your typical two week holiday to a tropical island, but was a real get down and dirty with very different cultures for a lengthy period. This was way more intellectually fulfilling, as gave myself a much broader view on the world and a deeper understanding of how others live. These are important things one must do to prevent ignorance and give you a good basis to stand on to make some claims such as that which follows in my world views.

There was a very different respect to how the normal person lives in Russia, Mongolia, China between each country and compared to New Zealand. There were aspects I thought fantastic, and others I feel need to change, and fast. Being concerned for the environment, (even though I did fly around the world), saw some major projects that need to be demolished as soon as possible. Large chimneys spilling out pollution throughout Russia and China can not continue. But this all comes at a cost to the people who are far poorer than we are in New Zealand, especially out in the countryside. Solutions must be thought up of soon to save the world from itself and without screwing over the poor. I think we can learn the most from Mongolia on this aspect, the nomads have chosen a simple way of life which doesn't require all the best homes, the fastest cars or whatever. They seem quite happy all living in the same styled Ger and getting around on their horses. Why can't we choose a more simple life in return for a better one?

Since coming back to New Zealand I've taken my thoughts to an action level, I now cycle every day to work, (in an office job I knew I'd have to return to). And am reducing my spending on unnecessary consumer products to hopefully use my money to do something more fulfilling in the future than watch tv every day.

I see the future to be very positive, with numerous opportunites to make the world a great place. Yet at the same time I don't stop living within this world because I'm waiting for it to get better. No I make sure I use all the great gifts nature has for us as much as possible. I think that getting out into the world makes you realise that protecting it is useless unless you are conserving so you can use it. So get out into life! I hope you enjoyed all my blogs, and wish that you'd read the entire lot. If you like it then make a comment or give me a job to be a travel writer....

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Yangshuo, the badlands of China...

Yangshuo's main drag

Mega city after mega city, it was time to head to the country side of China for a quiet relaxing break before the next mega city Hong Kong. Yangshuo is a great little town sort of on the way from Shanghai to Hong Kong, but unfortunately is far from quiet. This town is small, but is one of the major tourist spots in China. The reason it is so popular is that it is in amongst some of the most bizarrely amazing scenery around.

The Yulong River, farmland on the side, karst hills to the back

The Yi River looking north

I spent only a night here, but arrived early in the morning and left late at night so got in two solid days of adventure. Not wasting any time I checked into a nice cozy hostel, the Yangshuo Senior Leader Hostel for only 30 Yuan. As soon as I checked in I walked out to explore the town. The reason I wanted to explore is obvious if you take a look at the photos with this post. The attraction is the Karst landscape, these are limestone formations that have been eroded away to leave unique shapes. These karst formations are a lot what people might think of when they think Chinese landscape photos or paintings.

Reflective tower

An abandoned village

The river flowing out of the middle of Yangshuo

After a short explore around town I went and hired a bicycle, old school of course. Then headed out to explore the karst scenery through the local country side. There is a bike track set up that goes along the Yulong River that can only be described as uniquely incredible. Once out the busy little tourist town, you ride around centuries old farms and little villages that could be imagined to have never seen civilization before.

The track round the countryside got much more narrow than this

Animal cruetly: the bird is tied to this stick, so don't give him money for a photo

Ultimate old school bike, perfect for dirt tracks

Along the track the markings got rather long in between each one, and so it wasn't long till I was pretty lost. But just as I got lost, a young Chinese couple came riding up behind me. One able to speak a small bit of English asked me if I knew where I was going. I was lost, but it seemed not as lost as they were. So decided to lead them further along the maze of tracks until we eventually found the signs marking the main track again.

The expensive way to see the hills

Bike team

It took till about 6pm to find our way back to town. The ride was much longer than what we'd thought and we met others along the way who were giving up and returning the way they came from. But we completed it thanks to my great navigation skills, and also thanks to my new Chinese friends for paying for the raft ride across the Yulong River. Hungry after finishing we went out for dinner. Being with people who could speak Chinese was fantastic. They ordered up the best food on the menu, and got an interesting fish dish that I would have never been able to order with all of my zero Chinese ability. Following dinner we went out for a beer, then once things got awkward after we ran out of simple English things to say we parted ways.

Yum, fish with flavour

Pool takes the place of awkward conversation

Not a ripple on the lake

Unfortunately the next days weather was rather below average with a bit of precipitation. So instead of going on another bike ride up the Yi River, I just walked around town and bought some gifts for the folks back home. Not being able to resist photo temptation I went for a short walk along the Yi River just on the towns side to get more amazing shots.

A miniature karst hill

Yi River

Yangshuo reflects on the town lake

This karst scenery was truly amazing, and worthy of a bit of science, from the good old reliable wikipedia:
Karst landforms are generally the result of mildly acidic water acting on soluble bedrock such as limestone or dolostone. The carbonic acid that causes these features is formed as rain passes through the atmosphere picking up CO2, which dissolves in the water. Once the rain reaches the ground, it may pass through soil that may provide further CO2 to form a weak carbonic acid solution: H2O + CO2 → H2CO3. Recent studies of sulfates in karst waters suggests sulfuric and hydrosulfuric acids may also play an important role in karst formation.

This mildly acidic water begins to dissolve the surface and any fractures or bedding planes in the limestone bedrock. Over time these fractures enlarge as the bedrock continues to dissolve. Openings in the rock increase in size, and an underground drainage system begins to develop, allowing more water to pass through and accelerating the formation of underground karst features.

Somewhat less common than this limestone karst is gypsum karst, where the solubility of the mineral gypsum provides many similar structures to the dissolution and redeposition of calcium carbonate.

A man takes his ox out for a walk

The locals float under a beautiful bridge over the Yulong River

After a pretty long wait, I finally got on my 9 pm over night bus ride to Shenzhen. The final stop in China before Hong Kong, then home. With only a few days left before returning home I was getting more and more excited about seeing friends and family.

This is the over night bus to Shenzhen, they are mental, and only worthy of one ride in your life

Friday, February 13, 2009

Shanghai, Someone Should Inform Them It Isn't 2050 Just Yet

The classic Shanghai shot

According to that good old wikipedia, Shanghai is the most populous city proper in the world behind Mumbai. That means it is big.

Tomorrow Square harnesses the power of the sun

In this mega city I found out the hard way that there are a few really annoying things. Things that aren't any reason to stop one coming here, but some thing you need to be warned of. First of all, if you are going to the south train station to buy a ticket make sure you have got money on you to buy it. I went there expecting an ATM, well there was one but it didn't like my card even though it has never let me down anywhere else in the world. Luckily there is another ATM a bit of a walk out of the station, but unfortunately it is, at the time of visiting, going through maintenance. Long story short, I wasted about four hours not buying a ticket out of Shanghai. Next really annoying thing is that the subway lines shut down around 10pm each night. So if you go to a movie in town late at night, you might only be able to catch one of the two trains you need to get home. This results in you walking a few kilometres through dark streets in an unknown district of a foreign city to get back to the hostel around midnight.

The reflective Tomorrow Square

But with those qualms out the way, Shanghai was really impressive. A pompous city with futuristic buildings, a real display of what China's cities could be if they continue to push the boundaries of the new age.

The best way of course to see all this is along the Bund waterfront. Here is one of the most impressive city scapes presented over the lovely Huangpu River dividing the main business district from the shopping district. The futuristic buildings were mind blowing, the Oriental Pearl Tower, Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center are beyond nearly anything I've ever seen before. After seeing this, I turned around and walked back down one of the worlds busiest shopping streets, Nanjing Road. I looked around here, but all that was available was big retail brands. I wasn't into that, I wanted cheap knock offs, and I knew where to get them.

Nanjing Road means loads of annoying people trying to get your money

A subway ride out to Qipu Lu, an infamous knock off market aimed towards the locals, hence providing some of the cheapest big label clothes around. Standing out like a typical tourist in a sea of Chinese people I was instantly approached by all the nearby shop owners. They all can spot a sucker like myself to persuade to come in and spend lots of money on their low quality goods. I've turned rather market savvy and realise that you can probably get a better deal by walking around for a while making shops compete against each other, but instead I decided to go in for the 'follow me to my shop' approach. A man lead me a few blocks from the actual market to his shop that was in the back of some large unknown mall of other similar shops. Here he presented me with a fine selection of shirts and ties looking as though they were straight out of an Italian designers boutique. Expecting to make a good load of cash of me, he was fooled when the cheapest man in Shanghai to walk into his shop. So after experiences from Beijing such as getting a pair of jeans down to under 10 percent of the original asking price. I managed to achieve similar discounts after bargaining hard on a combo, which if real, would be worth well over a few hundred dollars.

The aesthetic French Concession

After a bit of super cheap shopping I headed over to the classy French Concession district. A nice contrast to the grey soul less streets elsewhere around town, I enjoyed a long walk along the tree lined avenues before getting some classic western food, donuts and coffee. Heading back into town I hoped to get into the Shanghai Museum before closing. Unfortunately the down to the letter rule abiding security guards wouldn't let me in only 3 mins after the last entrance time, even though it didn't fully shut for another hour. Rather angry at the world because it must have been the twentieth time I've missed a closing time by minutes in the last few months, I headed over across the city park to catch the subway back to the hostel.

The Oriental Pearl watches the sun go down

While going across the park the sun started to set, so as angry as I was, I stopped and took a photo. Then letting my anger subdue with the sunset I turned around and decided to try my luck on the MOCA (Museum of Comtempary Art) nearby. Being a much more open minded place, it didn't close till much later, and so I finally got to visit a decent art gallery overseas. It was small but of quite high quality. It had two really moving pieces, one a display of plastic dolls showing the amassing of rubbish toys being produced by China. The other a video showing people who make a living off saying a few words over and over. These were street vendors making a minuscule living repeating, “Shoes, watches, DVD's” or whatever every few seconds as a potential unsuspecting customer walked by. I found this moving because I have experienced hundreds of similar real life vendors every day in China.

Plastic dolls by the dozen

Afterwards I got back to the hostel and tried the local streets for some dinner. Not realising the hostel was in the middle of a illegal street market, I walked the busy streets, lined with peoples rubbish they were trying to sell, to a corner with a lady cooking up a storm. For 5 Yuan (~NZ$1.20) I got one of the most delicious street meals ever, full of MSG and all the other good stuff they put in their food in China. So feeling rather chuffed at my awesome dinner, I returned back to the hostel for the night after buying a hair brush off someone along the crazy street.

Mao is hanging out in Shanghai, as he does

All this might not have actually happened on one day, but actually over a few as I spent about three nights in Shanghai. After all that the best thing about Shanghai was the hostel. This was primarily because they put on a buffet breakfast every morning for no extra charge. The hostel was the Shanghai International Youth Hostel, for only $10 a night it was super awesome to wake up to an unlimited supply of really nice food. So if you are a hostel owner and reading this, heed my advice, put on a free breakfast. Seriously, a hostel with a free breakfast compared to one without is a definite deal seal. My last morning in town was an early one, but I risked the possibility of missing my train (I did have to go back another day to the train station with money to buy a ticket out) waiting around until the free breakfast started. Totally worth it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Wuhan and Nanjing, the slow road to Shanghai

Wuhan, not really the most beautiful place ever

After finishing the Yangtze River cruise I wanted to get to Shanghai. It was a 700km or so train journey that started in Wuhan and went through Nanjing before getting there. With time running out on my visa and still so much more to see in China I was hoping to get to Shanghai as soon as possible, but unfortunately train timetables gave me a couple of days to slowly meander along the route.

The Chinese version of space exploration, Wuhan

Seeing I got in so late to Wuhan I didn't have an opportunity to get a ticket out of there straight away so was forced to spend two nights in this city of which I've never really heard of, and is a city that doesn't really deserve to be known.

One of the biggest pedestrian shopping malls in China, in Wuhan

It was getting to the end of my second week in China and I had a pretty good idea of how things work, what I like to eat and what to go see. Typically I'd get a few steamed buns for breakfast, but here in Wuhan I got to enjoy a different breakfast treat. The local breakfast was a fried flat bread filled with chili and other delicious Chinese spices. Washed down with my favorite apple milks made it one of the best breakfasts of my trip. The next morning I got two of the breads because they were just so good. Next after seeing hundreds of religious sites throughout every country I was not too disappointed to chop the Wuhan main Buddhist monastery due to them not giving student discount.

As close as I got to the entrance to Wuhans main tourist attraction

The Yangtze following through Wuhan

So apart from that it was rather uneventful. Being one of the only guests at the hostel I had to spend the day by myself wondering around. The night market and the food street I found were alright, but not really amazing. Leaving the city the next day was quite relieving as I was getting closer to the ever elusive Shanghai. I took a hard seater train to Nanjing a good 12 hours away. It was actually a nice soft seat, but 12 hours is a long time to be sitting in one place. I easily finished my book I had and was left to sleep off the rest of the time. One interesting part was when the couple sitting beside me offered me these weird seeds to eat. They came in shells and you had to bite them apart. With quite a complicated method to it I managed to get some seeds, but mostly just made a horrible mess.

The night market was overflowing with everything in Wuhan

Nanjing from a far distance behind a lake

Because of the stupid day train timetable I didn't arrive till 11pm in Nanjing. Here I got another interesting experience of feeling completely exposed to a travellers nightmare much like in Wuhan. This was because the hostel I was staying at, the Sunflower International Youth Hostel, had some fantastic directions being, quote, “From Nanjing Railway station: Take the subway to San Shan Street stop, Exit 4. Ask locals for Zhan Yuan Lu.”. Having to find a local at midnight to show me where the Zhan Yuan Lu was not a fun task. I came out the subway station and realised I didn't even know what street I was on now. I walked a few blocks to see if I could even see any signs, their weren't any locals around to ask anyway. Feeling like it would be a good time to just start crying and give up on everything, I was lucky to run into a lady who spoke some English and quite persistently lead me nearly to the hostel door. These are the kind of experiences that make you believe in humanity and the rewards of independent travel, but at the same time leave you feeling incredibly home sick and just wanting to be in the comfort of a mundane life.

I walk the lakes edge, living on the line of danger

My day in Nanjing was rather mundane too. I went to the train station in the morning and got a ticket on night train out. Being on the other side of town from where I was staying I basically just spent the day walking back to the hostel. My slight down and out feeling at the time was cheered up with an expensive and rather over the top delicious Blizzard shake, full of chocolate and ice cream. Feeling better I went on a black and white photo expedition, capturing the busy life of a Chinese city. As demonstrated here:

Guy on the left has seen way too much

Too many tourists from within China

Too many decorations going on

The guys on the left are actually dressed in yellow

Everyone is doing something

Too much rubbish

Dangerous intersection

Too many cyclists

Too many motorbikes

The train at night was actually something I was quite excited about. It was a bullet train that flew along at over 200km/hr to Shanghai, much different from slow Russian trains. So even though I left at 7pm it only took 2 hours to get to Shanghai, and being a pretty advanced city had a well established hostel with good directions to it. So even though it was the third time in a row that I'd turned up to a city in the middle of the night I had no problem getting my head on a pillow without feeling like I'd be roughing it for the night. Ahh, travelling by yourself, it makes you realise you are alive!

Bullet trains are bad ass