Arrival in Sichuan Province

So the night of Chongqing hotpot didn't happen. We both seem to have caught a cold, although Yann has it much worse. When we returned from the internet cafe Yann decided he wasn't going to get up from bed so I got to go out by myself for dinner in Chongqing. Yes, I will admit it, I went to McDonalds and had small french fries and an ice cream cone. Yann has resisted all forms of non-Chinese food since we've been here.

We felt better the next morning so we continued with our plan to head to Leshan in Sichuan province by bus. The first 200 of 400km was smooth, new highways. I was saying to Yann, "wow the Lonely Planet is way off on this one, 8 hours? we're almost there!" We then entered the road from hell: wide enough for one car at most points (let alone a bus), yet covered by rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, animals, children and buses in both directions. It was dusty, and it was bumpy, very bumpy. The bus driver ordered us to keep our seats in the upright position, just when you hit turbulence on a plane. But luckily for me, the lock keeping the seat fixed was broken on mine, meaning that everytime we hit a bump (which was about every 1/2 second) my chair would shoot me into recline mode. Oh yes, and did I mention that our bus driver had a mad case of road rage. He pretty much yelled the entire busride and believe it or not, honked the horn every single time we passed anything on the road. Yann proclaimed that he was greatful for this because "it was safer", I myself wanted to jump off the bus and hitch a ride on a rickshaw.

Despite all this, we crossed into Sichuan province through some pretty awesome rural scenery, rice fields and bamboo forests and we arrived in Leshan where a rickshaw driver biked us 5 km, packs and all, to our hotel for 5 Y (about 80 cents) and the hotel attendant offered us a room for 40 Y less than the advertised price. Of course we took it, worrying the whole time about why we got the room for so cheap. Our good luck ran out though when we were overcharged for some fiery hotpot at a street stall. But at least we got a taste of it (although not in Chongqing).

It appears we have hit the low-season and it is pretty wonderful, the hotels are half-full and even better the tourist sites are half-full. We visited Leshan's one and only tourist site this morning, the Leshan Grand Buddha, the tallest sitting Buddha in the world (Note: we have also seen the largest reclining Buddha in the world and the largest Buddha north of the Yellow River on other excursions). He is mighty beautiful anyways, carved into reddish stone and covered in moss. We managed to disorient ourselves and climb up and down the mountain twice in order to see him. We finished this visit in the morning, had lunch and got on a bus for Emei Shan. We are here already at the base of the mountain, we will depart for a 3 day climb in a couple of days, once our colds are completely cleared. The mountain is covered with monkeys that have apparently become fairly demanding from years of being fed by tourists, we have been advised by many people to carry a stick in one hand and a stone in the other to ward them off. For a great laugh we have been told to follow closely one of many groups of Chinese tourists carrying bags of food, apparently madness ensues!

Yangtze River Cruise

Just before leaving Yichang for our cruise we had another lovely dining experience at a small restaurant. Our earlier technique of pointing at dishes that other people were eating had proved very successful, but we found a flaw in it: it is entirely dependant on the ability of those around you to order correctly. Well, to sum it up we ordered large pig intestines for lunch and cringed as people around us watched us attempt to finish the plate (it didn't happen by the way).

We headed to the ferry terminal for our afternoon depature, we bought some tickets from some shaddy counter and I had my doubts as to whether or not we would ever get on a ship. After a long bus ride to the ship we managed to board it a few hours later along with a few other foreigners including a French woman, Fabienne, that was very excited to have met someone who she could speak french to. We saw lots of her during our 3 days and she was a great source of information and extremely nice to talk to (she has been travelling for 2 years). She even gave me a pair of pants that she didn't need anymore.

Our four person cabin (we splurged for second class) was surprisingly nice and smelled great (until the bleach smell gave way to the standard sewage smell). We had a middle-aged Chinese couple with us Yao and Li. The husband Yao spoke English and was able to help us with all the Chinese instructions given to us by the boat staff. They asked us lots of questions about Canada and Li, who couldn't speak a word of English giggled as she squeezed the fat on my gut. (Yann thought this was hilarious!, me, not so much). They did look out for us, one night when we arrived at 10 p.m from the deck Li was waiting at the door of our cabin for us. She thought we were lost, or that we were stranded at the last stop.

Our first morning on the boat, we woke up to find that mice had gotten into our snacks, which made us sad. It didn't seem to shock Yao and Li too much, we just moved all our food to the upper cabinets. Then I got into a stand-off with the tour guide who wanted to charge us 50 Y more than Chinese guests for the day trip. We refused and went back to our rooms to spend the day there, she came to get us about 30 seconds before departure and told us we could come on condition we didn't tell the other foreigners what we had paid for our tickets.

This first day trip was extremely random (and as it turned out, not really worth the money). We left our cruise ship onto a smaller boat and entered the Shennong river, the river has some beautiful gorges and is the home to a small minority group in China, but the big draw is the naked boat trackers. Young, muscular men who pull boats upstream naked (at least this is what we were led to believe). It turns out, no one really does this anymore, but they did transfer all two hundred of us into small traditional wooden boats and local men pulled us upstream in their underwear. This my friends, is Chinese tourism! I guess it was worth if for that alone. After this 6 hour excursion we opted to skip the other tours along the way and got off the boat and wandered the small towns on our own. This proved to be more interesting and more economical.

We sailed through the famous Three Gorges all afternoon and sat up on the upper deck in deck chairs watching them (this was very relaxing). For dinner we stopped at a small seaport called Fen jie and had dinner with our newfound friends, Fabienne and a couple from the Netherlands Willemijn and Arjen. (Arjen is a medical student and he gave me a consultation on my finger that got infected from peeling an orange).

We had a great time slowly moving down the river and we arrived bright and early (5 a.m.) in Chongqing this morning. Our roommates were definetely early birds and they had us ready by 6 a.m. for the tour of Chongqing that we had signed onto with them. It was a great ultra cheap tour that brought us to a couple sights out of town and then back downtown. Of course, it was only in Chinese, but we are willing to read the English signs. Mid-afternoon we were dropped off on some street corner in Chongqing (a city of 10 million inhabitants) with only a vague idea of the direction we had to walk in (Yann has a compass). Within thirty seconds of standing there with our Lonely Planet open an old man had us aboard a public bus with instructions to the bus driver to leave us downtown. We were there in 10 minutes and another group of people showed us to our hotel. We are being very well taken care of. Oh yeah, and a guy from Chicago living here walked us to this internet cafe, because he couldn't remember the name of the street.

We are only here one night as we are moving even further west, but tonight we will sample famous Chongqing hotpot, one of the spiciest dishes in China. (We have had it once with Janice and Dennis and I swear it made me feverish). We have to be at the long distance bus station tomorrow morning by 6:30 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. bus to Leshan.

The Greatest Dam in the World!

We arrived in Yichang last night more than an hour late, so we were on the train in total about 27 hours. We had nice bunks right next to the bathroom and the smoking area. The train policeman was particularly interested in us and would come sit on our bunks and light up every once in a  while. Of course there is no smoking allowed in the bunk areas, but once the policeman was smoking, hey why not all join in? He taught me to pronounce "How much?" and "That's to expensive" properly, and in exchange I taught him that expensive was the opposite of cheap. He also got me to draw him a maple leaf (which he knew had something to do with Canada). I don't usually trust policemen (especially here), and I got a little bit nervous when he asked me to see my passport. It was all ok, he just wanted to see my visa to Vietnam, and he proceeded to warn us, "be careful there".  The train ride wasn't particularly picturesque, mostly farm land and all three of our meals (that we brought along) consisted of noodles (just add water).
When we arrived in Yichang we walked to the Trainstation Hotel, we got a double room for about 15$, however we had to contend with huge cockroaches. Actually, I'm exaggerating, it was only one huge cockroach, but it was enough to have Yann and I wrapped in our sleeping bags stuck together on the same single bed all night (the one that was not against the wall). I thought we could draw a line of DEET around the bed and they wouldn't cross it, but Yann thought I was crazy. Oh yeah, no hot water either. 
The main and only tourist site in Yichang is the ridiculously gigantic Three Gorges Dam. We did a four hour tour today with a Chinese tour group. Dozens and Dozens of tour buses climb to the top of the dam with each passenger paying almost 20$ each for access.  Its all quite bizarre, Yann stopped me from buying the "Greatest Dam in the  World" t-shirt, a t-shirt which  I think pretty much sums up how I feel about the Three Gorges Dam.  The little kids from other tour groups liked to come up and say "Hello, how are you?" they are very very cute, when we responded "I'm fine thank you, how are you?" they would giggle and run away, only to come back a few minutes later and begin again.
The food here is delicious, and cheap and I've had to practise my Chinese because nobody here speaks English. The advantage of being in a non-touristy city is that you are treated the same way as others when it comes to pricing. However, there are no English menus anywhere, which is fine when there are pictures, but there are no pictures either. Yann tried the point randomly at 2 dishes method and got laughed at by the waitresses, instead we walked around to other tables until we saw something we liked. A grand success!       
We spent all morning at the ferry terminal shopping for the perfect cruise. We've come to the conclusion that every single counter is selling tickets for the same boat. We opted for 2nd class tickets, that cost us about 75$/each for 4 days and three nights, EEEEK.
We leave tomorrow and we'll be in Chongqing in about 4 days!         

Day on the Train

Our hard-sleeper tickets arrived at the hotel yesterday afternoon, we are heading to Yichang tonight, a 25 hour train ride. We discovered a grocery store yesterday! This was wonderful because we purchased all our food for the train ride, for a little lessl than 7 dollars. The grocery store is called Carrefour, I'm guessing French ownership? We wont have the luxury of huge western style grocery stores where we are heading next.
We are still debating whether to take the Yangtze River cruise, its a 3 day trip upriver. Yann's main concern is being on a dirty unsafe boat for 3 days, my main concern is the price. The trip will cost us about 200$ U.S and that doesn't include meals or admission to any of the stops along the way. However, many of the areas will disappear after the flooding of the Yangtze I think it just might be worth it.

Fried Eel in Hangzhou

Hangzhou is pretty peaceful, considering there are 6 million people living here. Our hostel is a 30 second walk to West Lake. We rented bikes and spent the morning biking around the lake dodging the hundred of tourists that were already around by 8 a.m.
Last night we sought out a famous noodle restaurant for dinner. The last time I encountered eel, I had actually bought it to make sushi, and then called out my parents and others when they didn't want to try it (but secretly I didn't eat any of it myself until Yann figured me out). We read that the specialty at this restaurant was the shrimp and fried eel noodles, so I promptly ordered them while Yann stuck to something more usual. Of course as soon as they arrived I realised I really really didn't want to eat the eel and I was stuck listening to Yann make fun of me (deservedly). Anyways the eel is pictured below (its the brown stuff) and its actually delicious and I ate the whole bowl, so good for me! Ha!

Leaving Shanghai

We spent the last few days in Shanghai exploring tourist spots. To answer my dad's question. Our dinner host Laura is the best friend of one of my (Emilie) classmates Qun from McGill (actually my officemate). They are both from the same hometown and Qun was excited to hook us up in Shanghai. Laura is an English teacher and her English is great. As Yann already mentioned, she was adamant that in China you eat real Chinese food, and was not impressed with my reluctance to order fish head soup.
The temperatures here are hotter than we expected, around 30 C. Our hostel was very damp so we've felt pretty sticky. That, however, has not prevented Yann from not showering for the past few days. I made the bone-headed move of deciding to dry my wet clothes in our small bedroom, the humidity didn't go away for days.
Our highlights of Shanghai: Old town, The Bund, Street vendor breakfasts
Our lowlights of Shanghai: Our hostel roommate who woke us up everynight at 4 a.m. returning from the bars, the traffic (not as bad as Beijing), the shopping malls, the western food

So we got up early this morning to take a short train ride to Hangzhou, the home of the "very famous" West Lake. We will spend two days here for Yann to rest his back (hostel beds = not good) then we will take a 25 hour train to Yichang, the gateway to the Three Gorges Dam. We will then re-open the debate about boat travel, to see if I can convince Yann to take a "cruise" up the Yangze River!

We are leaving Shanghai

After a few days in Shanghai it is time to move on to our next destination which is unknown to us at this very moment. We are debating the options but we are certainly leaving the city tomorrow. Yesterday, Laura treated us to a wonderful dinner last night which ended in eating a soup with a fish head, a delicacy in China. Also a correction on the crickets they are not pets but used in fighting competition for wagering, as Laura informed us.

Shanghai First Impressions

We were on our feet for 8 hours yesterday, we started out at 8 a.m walking along the Bund (the old European boardwalk). The weather is very smoggy and hot (about 26 C). We had street food for breakfast : Chive and coriander crepes (about 25 cents each), there are many vendors along the street where out hostel is and having tried them last year, we were more eager to skip the western style breakfast served at the hostel for about 3 bucks.
We spent most of the morning wandering around "Old Town", kind of like the equivalent of Vieux Quebec. We waited in line for 1 hour to try some famous pork dumplings for lunch. We skipped out on the chick skewers, yes little baby chicken carcasses charred on a bbq. The thing that made me laugh the most about these is the posters of cute little chicks that they had up on the wall, as if that would inspire us to eat them.
We went to an antique market and a bird and insect market in the afternoon. The bird and insect market was crazy. We learned that people collect crickets as pets, and there were lots and lots of them, the whole market chirps, you can buy little decorative cages for them, and special brushes to poke them with.
We had dinner in a little street restaurant, fried eggplant, sizzling beef (beef served on a sizzling cast iron pan, kind of like fajitas at Mexicali Rosas) , fried rice, steamed rice and two pepsis for about 6$. It was great, but we had to overcome the absolutely disgusting settings of the restaurant (I do not use the word disgusting lightly). When we first sat down we were the only people there (which I believe makes us very brave), later on more people had entered. At one point, a little boy got up to ask for a washroom and the owner sent him outside to pee off the steps of the restaurant.
We were so tired at this point and we hit our bunk bed at about 7:30 and slept a full 12 hours.

Flight to China

Ok, I think I have pretty much overcome my fear of flying. I made it through three take-offs and three landings. Although on the landing in to Shanghai, I decided that the wing was on fire (fog). Of course, as Yann pointed out, despite this, my action was just to close the window and close my eyes. Our flight from Toronto was slightly delayed cause of bad weather in Chicago, too windy.
Our 13 hour flight to Tokyo was pretty awesome cause I would say it was no more than 1/4 full. Each passenger had a row of seats to lay down on, it was a huge double decker 747 too. We arrived in Shanghai at about 9:30 p.m., by the time we arrived downtown it was about 11:15 and then we walked for an hour to our hostel, since we had just missed the last metro. The hostel is booming at all hours of the night, the beer is cheap and the internet is free.