Best (and Worst) of China, Part II

These are our choices for the best and worst moments of our 18 days in China. We spent some time in the following provinces: Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Shandong, Hebei, Fujian, Guizhou, Guangxi, Guangdong, Beijing, Macau and Hong Kong (in China Part I, and in Pakistan and the Karakorum Highway, the follwoing provinces were featured: Shanghai, Zhejiang, Hubei, Chongqing, Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang). We've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit here here.

Our FAVOURITE Cities/Villages
According to Yann:
1- Zhaoxing, Guizhou Province
2- Manigango, Sichuan Province
3- Hongkeng, Fujian Province
According to Emilie:
1- Xiahe, Gansu Province
2- Xi'an, Shaanxi Province
3- Zhaoxing, Guizhou Province
4- Beijing

Our FAVOURITE Tourist Attractions
According to Yann:
1- Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu Province
2- Tang An Village, Guizhou Province
3- Hakka Earth Houses, Fujian Province
According to Emilie:
1- Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu Province
2- The Printing Monastery, Dege, Sichuan Province
3- Peking Duck Restaurants, Beijing
4- The Outlying Temples, Chengde, Hebei Province
5- Hakka Earth Houses, Fujian Province

Most DISAPPOINTING Tourist Attractions
According to Emilie and Yann:
1- Dunhuang, sand dunes and Mogao Caves, both totally overpriced
1- Yangshuo, over-hyped
2- Night markets of Henan Province (Luoyang closed, Kaifeng not as big as imagined)
3- Hong Kong skyline in the haze
4- Macau old town, surrounded by high end boutiques

The Most IMPRESSIVE Local Architecture
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Hakka tulous, Yongding County, Fujian Province
2- Tibetan monasteries, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan Provinces
3- Qiang watchtowers, Danba, Sichuan Province
According to Emilie:
1- Tibetan monasteries, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan Provinces
2- Qiang watchtowers, Danba, Sichuan Province
3- Hakka tulous, Yongding County, Fujian Province
4- Temple of Heaven, Beijing

According to Yann:
1- Peking Duck, from Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant, Beijing
2- Chicken dumplings in peanut butter sauce, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province
3- Roasted leg of lamb with cumin, Xi'an Muslim Quarter, Shaanxi Province
4- Indian food, Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong (better than Indian food in India?!?!?)
According to Emilie:
1- Peking Duck, from Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant, Beijing
2- Squid Kebabs and other delicacies at the night market, Xining, Qinghai Province
3- Roasted leg of lamb with cumin, Xi'an Muslim Quarter, Shaanxi Province
4- Chicken dumplings in peanut butter sauce, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province
5- Pork dumplings, Dazhalan Jie Street, Beijing
6- Food from our cooking class, Yangshuo, Guangxi Province
7- Indian food, Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

According to Yann:
1- Dumplings stuffed with chives and noodles
According to Emilie:
1- Dumplings stuffed with chives and noodles
2- Nescafe instant coffee (I still drank it every day though)
3- "Beijing style" cuisine in Macau

According to Emilie and Yann:
1- Road from Manigango to Dege (over the 5050m Tro La Pass), Sichuan Province
2- Giant sand dunes, Dunhuang, Gansu Province
3- Mountains dotted with Qiang watchtowers, Danba, Sichuan Province
4- Road from Yushu to Manigango (Qinghai to Sichuan Province)

Places we wish we had MORE TIME for
According to Emilie and Yann:
1- Tibetan Monasteries of Northwest Sichuan Province
2- Dong and Miao Villages of Eastern Guizhou Province
3- Kaifeng, Henan Province. Seemed atmospheric and interesting.
4- Xiamen, Fujian Province, (for the amazing seafood restaurants)
5- Changji, Xinjiang Province (to lounge with our friend Jochen)

According to Emilie and Yann:
1- Labrang Red Rock Youth Hostel, Xiahe. Run by enthousiastic monks.
2- Kaiyue Youth Hostel, Qingdao. God were we happy to get there.
3- Qianmen Youth Hostel, Beijing. Brand new, cheap(ish), friendly and central.
4- Double Seven Guesthouse, 7th floor, Chunking Mansions, Hong Kong. So damn good.
5- Mountain Villa at off-season prices, Chengde, Hebei Province.

According to Emilie and Yann:
1- Monastery Guesthouse, Yushu, Qinghai. Who new monks could be so grumpy and filthy?
2- San Va Hospedaria, Macau. This one almost made it to the best accomodation list. Atmospheric, clean, cheap, but too full of weirdos.

For those interested in our expenses, we have updated our homepage with our financial information for this phase of China, it is available here

A Ferry Ride (and a World) Away

From Macau, we rode on a high speed catamaran to Kowloon. It took less than an hour, but the captain apologized over the intercom for the delay, due to choppy waters. Every time we hit a wave we flew through the air, the groups of excited/freightened tourists yelled/gasped. Yann was excited, I was scared. From the ferry terminal, our hotel was only a few minutes walk away. We were headed to Chungking Mansions the seediest and cheapest location in all of Hong Kong. For the first time in months were at a multi-ethnic destination, restricted to a kilometer radius around the Chungking Mansions. Alot of badmouthing goes on about the infamous appartment block, but Yann and I loved it. Each floor of the building has a handful of different budget guesthouses. We arrived, jumped in the elevator, randomly chose floor number seven, and ended up with a cozy, quiet double room for really a spectacular price, considering the cost of everything else in Hong Kong (a 2007 study ranked the cost of living in Hong Kong as 5th highest among 143 countries, the cost of rental accomodation is highest in the world, so you have to be happy with a 16$/night room). Hong Kong Island and Kowloon make up one of the most densily populated areas in the world. Just walking down the sidewalk was challenging. After first afternoon in the city, we felt completely overwhelmed. We also felt shabby and underdressed. Our torn pants and stained t-shirts just weren't going to cut it here. Here's a list of just a few of the many differences between Hong Kong and the Mainland which traumatised us:
-People queue up
-Cars stop at crosswalks and red lights
-People generally refrain from jay walking
-Fines for spitting and smoking in public places
-Driving on the left side of the road
-Where's the street food?
-Why the hell is this public washroom so clean?
-We can flush our toilet paper?
-The souvenirs are still hideously tacky, but are 10 times more expensive
-McDonald's is the cheapest dining option
-No internet firewall
-Drinkable tap water
-Expensive internet cafes
-Non-expats in the Starbucks
-People speak English
Sadly, in five days in Hong Kong we didn't eat a single Cantonese meal. We had decided we would splurge on a Sunday dim sum, but then decided it just wasn't worth the money. We ate delicious (and cheap) Indian food from a small take-out counter on the ground floor of the Chunking Mansions every night. The building is full of Indian and African restaurants, serving the migrant workers hungry for a taste of home who make up most of the staff. Kowloon, is actually attached to mainland China but is a ten minute ferry ride away from Hong Kong Island, home to the main business district and famous skyline. We spent a day there, taking a ride on tram to Victoria Peak, and got disappointing views hazy city below (although we agreed that on a clear day, if they exist, the view would be incredible). On our last day in the city we visited the flower market and the bird market, which were both interesting, but seemed a little bit to clean and ordered compared with other Asian markets. Hong Kong is a demanding city. It's fast paced, crowded and just too business oriented. The main activity seems to be shopping, and you get the impressions that the city is made up of one shopping mall after another. While we were there, we frequently sought out the quiet of our tiny hotel room. Strangely, the place which in alot of ways most resembled home, was the hardest place for us to adjust to.

Rua de la Felicidade

We ended up spending two nights in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), shopping (and pollution) capital of the world, where we spent the most on a hotel room than anywhere else on our trip. After an unsuccessful trip across the huge city to get to a youth hostel, we ended up following a tout to a seedy hotel around the train station, where we had a lovely balcony crawling with rats (we love rats in our stew). But the private room here, was the same price as two beds in a dormitory in a posher area of the city. We spent Saturday and Sunday in Guangzhou, to avoid the weekend casino rush in Macau, when room prices skyrocket. Lazily, we mainly hung around the train station, where we killed time between our eagerly awaited peanut butter dumpling meals. On Monday morning, we left China, passing through customs in Zhuhai from where we entered Macau on foot. The first obvious change from the mainland was the Portuguese signage, often replacing what might have been an English translation. We never figured out if anyone in Macau, other than maybe Portuguese tourists, could actually speak Portuguese. It still shares official language status with Cantonese. Our highly advanced Mandarin skills were rendered officially useless, our first meal in the city was an excessively expensive wonton meal, which we had understood to be just an expensive wonton meal. Over the past decade or so, Macau's casino scene has exploded (seeing as it is the only place in the PRC where casinos exist legally). Mainlanders and the Hong-Kong-ese descend onto the city for the usual excess, with full turbo-jet ferries leaving Hong Kong every fifteen minutes. We found the place to be bursting at the seams, even on the supposedly quiet Monday and Tuesday. The city's old quarter houses most of the UNESCO protected heritage buildings, vestiges of centuries of Portuguese rule. Something is lost though, by the expensive boutique stores that now surround them. Every other building is a jewelry store or a bank (the most infamous being the Banco Delta Asia, keeping North Korea's assets safe). The symbol of Macau is what remains of St Paul's church, crawling with tourists but beautiful nonetheless. Our atmospheric little hotel, the San Va Hospedaria, was right in the heart of the old quarter, on the rua de la Felicidade (former? red light district aptly named the Street of Happiness). So atmospheric was the hostel, that a movie was filmed there with the interesting synopsis: "Is she a one-nighter, or his daughter?". We passed on the by-the-hour rooms and checked in to the last available 'double room' the size of a small office cubicle, with similar flimsy walls separating us from our neighbours (and stopping well short of the ceiling). One neighbour's fluorescent light kept us up for most of the night, he turned it off at 6a.m. The other neighbour compulsively ran water and splashed it noisily around in his sink, taking breaks to moan for his mama. Down the narrow Street of Happiness, shops make and sell almond cookies (on which we overdosed within half an hour of our arrival), or delicious bacon-like meat. The air around our hotel smelled strongly of almond extract and meat under the heat lamps. Yann discovered Portuguese egg tarts (pastries filled with an egg custard), which we devoured for breakfasts, or afternoon snacks. With more energy and patience, there was much more to Macau for us to discover, but we had neither of those left after two quasi-sleepless nights at the hostel. We got our first look at modern Macau on our walk to the ferry terminal. The jewel in the crown of hideousness, had to be the Fisherman's Wharf, home to replicas of the Roman Coliseum, The Forbidden City, a volcano and best of all the Potala Palace, Tibetan Buddhism's most holy site, immortalized on the Macau casino strip.

Dong Country

After picking our visas, we had five days before our train left from Guilin. Instead of more rest we opted for a slightly more grueling option of heading west into Guizhou Province, one of the poorer provinces of China, but one of its most ethnically diverse. Five days would five us just enough time to visit one or two villages in the eastern part of the province, with alot of time spent on bad roads and even worse buses.

We ended up in the village of Zhaoxing, home to a community of Dong people. Although the village is not exactly off the beaten track, we only met a handful of tourists in our three days there. The Dong people are known as skilled carpenters, their homes are built entirely out of wood, without the use of nails. They are also known for their drum towers and wind and rain bridges, all made entirely of wood. Zhaoxing had numerous small bridges and five drumtowers, which serve as social and religious centres in the community. Homes are built closely together, making the village almost entirely pedestrianised, with multiple bridges crossing the small river that runs through it. No one in the village is decked out in colourful minority clothing, something here that seems to mainly exist for the benefit of tourists, although most still wear their hair in the traditional top knot, and the older villagers wear clothing made from their hand made fabric. The men smoke from long bamboo pipes. The most amazing thing about Zhaoxing was how much it was brimming with activity. All over the village, women mixed indigo dye, made from fermented indigo leaves transported from their fields. Swaths of fabric were hung to dry from balconies, or laid out in the fields. Once finished drying women flattened the fabric with large wooden mallets. As we walked into the surrounding hills we could still here the sound of dozens of hammers resounding through the village. Women sorted through freshly harvest cotton, carried baskets full of vegetables from their fields, washed clothes in the river, sewed and embroidered. Most of them work all day with their babies strapped to their backs. Men worked at wood carving and house building, several of which were going up in the booming village. And the older men weaved baskets, for carrying their knives, or catching rodents. At night we could here the local singing group practising next door. Two hours worthwhile walk away, uphill, is Tang'An, another beautiful Dong village. Off the main highway, it is smaller and quieter than neighbouring Zhaoxing, but no less lively. In the evening were treated to a performance, at the outdoor village theatre. Amazing that in such a small village that could assemble eighteen people with such great voices. The performance was only slightly marred by the smoking, horking, loudly talking Chinese tour group, which, having financed the performance, we felt we couldn't do much about. Although we spent more time riding the bus getting to Zhaoxing than visiting it, we felt that we were more than rewarded with a glimpse into the lives of its hardworking villagers.

Taking a Break in Yangshuo

Yann and I debated for a long time whether or not we would spend our last month in China relaxing, or keep up to our usual fast pace. I had a list of over a dozen places scattered over the country that I still wanted to visit, Yann was pulling for the relax option, wanting to stay in one place for a few weeks to rest. This despite the fact that for over a whole year on the road, Yann has found it quasi-impossible to "do nothing" as he calls it. We compromised with our short trip to Fujian Province, then onto Yangshuo, a backpacker getaway in the southwest. Whether we liked the place or not, we knew we could get cheap accommodations and the weather would be good.

After one day in Yangshuo, Yann was ready to leave, and so was I. We had spent out first day in town wandering around taking in the hundreds of souvenir shops (many with visa card stickers in their windows, a very bad sign) or sifting through menus trying to see who sold the cheapest pizza or hamburger. In the evening we had the privilege of watching three rowdy foreigners sexually harassing/assaulting local Chinese girls. All of this on or around West Street, the pedestrianised centre of nightlife and tourist activity in Yangshuo. Our hotel was on a side street directly behind the Moulin Rouge Nightclub, and the bass shook our room until about two in the morning. The karst scenery that makes the region famous was marred by haze.

Despite all this, we forged on with our relaxing. Actually our Chinese visa was two days from expiration and we had to renew it at the local police station, a process which takes a week. On the plus side, the staff at our hotel were extremely friendly, we found a restaurant selling great tuna burgers (for cheap), we rented a DVD player for 0.75$/night and we met the the town's two bootleg DVD salesmen. We got used to the loud music at night and gave in pretty quickly to the seduction of foreign comforts.

Despite rock-climbing, kayaking, musicals, cormorant fishing, cruises down the Li River, hot-air balloon rides, cave exploration, hot spring tours... we spent most of our eight days in Yangshuo doing nothing. We managed to move for a half day cooking course which ended up being worth the effort. The course included a tour of the local market, Southern Chinese are reknowned throughout the country for their 'diversified' menu. As a Chinese saying describes their cuisine: "Anything that walks, swims, crawls or flies with its back to heaven is edible". We fell victim to the wrath of the dog meat seller, who threatened to pelt us with a piece of raw dog meat if we didn't stop taking pictures (maybe she's had a few too many hypocritical foreigners being "outraged by the cruelty"). The course itself was held in a lovely renovated farm house in a small village outside Yangshuo. We now know how to cook (sort of): beer fish (a local dish of fish cooked in beer, chicken with cashew nuts, stuffed mushrooms, Hongshao eggplant and vegetables with garlic. Cooking Chinese dishes was way more difficult than cooking Cambodian dishes, mainly because everything is done so fast. We had the woks blasting at high heat for most of the course with the instructor yelling out instructions and assistants helping us as we lagged behind. Yann proved much more skilled than I was. Later in the week we did the mandatory cruise down the Li River. Actually we hired a (motorised) bamboo raft for a half hour ride. Only a few years ago, villagers still paddled people around. Now most rafts are no longer made out of bamboo, but out of PVC tubes and all of them have motors, progress. One afternoon, Debbie, the receptionist at our hotel invited us to her village, a short bike ride away. Despite working full time at the hotel, in between shifts, she rides her bike to her father's farm where she helps him in the fields. We joined her and her father, picking miniature oranges. At the end of three hours we had picked, along with her father, two large baskets, which her father will then bring to the market to sell on his motorbike in the early morning. Yann and I could barely lift the baskets off the ground (actually Yann got it up on try number three, and I never got it off the ground), Debbie picked them up without a sign of difficulty her father seemed highly entertained by our display of inferiority. It made us appreciate the little old ladies lugging around the same size baskets full of pomelos through the streets of Yangshuo. Despite the rave reviews, we could have passed on West Street and Yangshuo tourism in general. The flower crown sellers, the cormorant fishermen who have abandoned fishing for the more lucrative practice of posing for photos dressed in full fishing gear (with cormorants), the constant harassment by postcard sellers (you can't sit down for two minutes at a restaurant before they find you), the pashmina vendors, the 'Tibetan silver' stalls and the always popular Han Chinese dressed up as local minorities. It's not that this stuff doesn't exist all over China, it's actually quite manageable, in small doses.

The Hakka Tulous

The earth buildings, known locally as tulous, are the reason that we made the trip all the way to Fujian. It only took one picture of these giant circular communal homes to convince us that the trip would be worth while (to convince me anyways, Yann had to actually see them in person before being convinced). The little information in our guidebook turned out to mostly be wrong, including train schedules, distances between tulous and village names. From Xiamen, we caught a train to Longyan, a city about two hours away from the main clusters of tulous. We didn't know where to go next, we had the name of a town scribbled down, but we had no map of the city nor any idea where the bus station was. We sat down in a little restaurant and were immediately joined by a crowd of people. We assumed they were taxi drivers, but most were just curious locals. The adorable owner of the restaurant impressed them with his English skills "sit down please, sit down please, thank you, monkey, tiger, orange, banana". We tried to explain where we were going, most already knew and were repeating "tulou tulou". After a few minutes someone arrived with three teenage girls, they had gone to fetch them because they could speak some English. They offered the taxi services of a driver, but they also were happy to give us the cheaper alternative, a city bus to the bus station, and then an onward bus to the tulous, they gave us all the instructions we needed. Everyone in the restaurant seemed happy to have helped when we set off.

We got a bus ticket to Hukeng, which was listed as the best base for exploring the nearby tulous. The tulous are actually scattered all over the southwest of Fujian and on the two hour drive to Hukeng we passed dozens of them, although many had been updated Chinese style with white-tiled additions. Before the turnoff for Hukeng, our minibus pulled over to the side of the road and the driver announced that anyone going to the tulous would be transferred into a van that seemed to be waiting to meet us. Under ordinary circumstances, we would have insisted that the bus continue its scheduled trip to Hukeng, but having little idea of where we were or where we wanted to go, we got into the van along with two Chinese tourists and a local farmer. The possibility that this was a legitimate transfer disappeared the minute we were handed the hotel business cards. We ended up at a very small village a few kilometers past Hukeng, our intended destination. Our sneaky drivers ended up being quite friendly and non-pushy, they seemed to have focused their attention on the Chinese couple, so we ended up in their hotel. From the huge illustrated map in the hotel lobby we realised that we were right in the middle of tulou country, the ones we were hoping to visit were actually here in Hongkeng and not in Hukeng as was mentioned in our guidebook. As the sun was setting we wandered through the quiet village watching the locals return from their fields for dinner. The next day we embarked on a full day of tulou sightseeing. Along with the Chinese couple who had been roped into the same hotel as us, we hired a driver to bring us to five nearby villages, each with notable tulous. The first place we visited was Tianluokeng, an impressive cluster of four annular tulous encircling a rectangular one. We arrived before sunrise and were the only visitors. Villagers didn't seem to be bothered by us wandering through their homes, I suppose they're used to lack of privacy. The huge communal homes were originally built by the local Hakka people to keep out bandits and wild animals. Most are still inhabited. On the ground floor are the kitchens, each one with a chimney exiting the mud walls of the building. The courtyard in the centre is used for cleaning, food preparation and socializing over a cup of the famous Fujianese tea. On the second and third floors are the bedrooms storage rooms (sometimes there is a fourth floor). The buildings are made almost entirely out of wood, other than the outer mud walls (from which the buildings take their name: Earth Buildings). We waited for the sun to illuminate each of the Tianluokeng tulous one by one. From Tianluokeng we drove to the nearby village of Xiaban whose main tulou is famous due to the fact that it seems to be on the verge of collapse. It is called Yuchang Tulou (translation, the dilapidated earth building). Shortly after it was built, its beams warped, some as much as 15 degrees, but it has been standing ever since (almost a hundred years) and is still inhabited. From there we visited Taxia, a charming village with a few tulous, which were just probably added to our tulou tour, so that they could claim we were visiting four different sites. We didn't mind that the tulous weren't particularly spectacular, because the village itself was. It was harvest time for persimmons and purple flower, with baskets of them set along the river to dry. According to one local man, the purple flower petals are used to make makeup, although we never once spotted a Hakka woman wearing purple eyeshadow. From there we got our driver to drop us off at the last group of tulous in the village of Gaobei. The Chinese tourists with us didn't want to visit them, because they didn't want to pay the full admission price. We found the huge Chengqi Tulou in Gaobei to be the most impressive. It is made up of a central square altar used for prayers, surrounded by three concentric rings separated by narrow hallways. As in Taxia, the village of Gaobei was filled with baskets of drying persimmons. We had lunch our lunch of a pomelo and peanuts to the distress of the old ladies of the village who didn't think it was adequate nutrition and tried to get us to eat with them. One ended up filling our bag with persimmons despite our objections. By the time we got to Hongkeng we had seen over a dozen tulous and were getting slightly tuloued out. But we forged on and bought out ticket for the 'Tourist Tulou AAAA Village'. This group of tulous around Hongkeng has basically been closed off to anything but local traffic, and golf carts whiz tourists past the numerous tulous. It is obvious why the area was chosen as the tourist village, there are many tulous grouped closely together, of various shapes and sizes in a picturesque setting along a small river. Tourism hasn't really transformed the tulou villages the way it has other 'minority destinations' in China. The villagers seem not to have given up their day jobs quite yet(read working the fields). We watched them as they picked, peeled, flattened roasted, and finally spread out to dry hundreds of persimmons. The amount of work that went into our 5 yuan bag of 20 dried persimmons is incredible. You can't really blame anyone for switching to postcard selling or golf cart driving. Even in Zhencheng Tulou, the biggest of the tulous in the 'tourist village' residents cooked together in the courtyard while tourists wandered around the balconies. We were happy to have gotten a glimpse of tulou life, before it changes forever (something that seems iminent).