A Travellerspoint blog

Olympic Opening Ceremony, Guilin

rain 30 °C
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We were nowhere near Beijing for the Olympics, still, we couldn't help but get excited as the opening ceremony approached. Guilin turned itself into a mini theme park, with rides and tat selling stalls on the periphery of the main square. As the countdown clock was nearing zero, a large crowd gathered beneath the large t.v. screen. We had been informed that the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 8 minutes and 8 seconds past 8 on the 8/8/08 - apparently 8 in Mandarin sounds similar to the word for wealth and prosper. The t.v. played adverts and any mention of the Olympics brought a loud, excited roar from the surrounding fans. People turned up with huge flags and we were given mini ones to wave with the rest of them. Professional photographers were snapping images of the 2000 strong throng. The Brunton's settled themselves down on the warm tiled floor, ready to watch the spectacular. Then a peculiar thing happened, well not specifically peculiar, so much as - nothing. The official start time came and went. Nothing. We waited patiently, thinking that the t.v. monitor had run into difficulty. When twenty minutes past eight came, the t.v. closed down for good, the crowd dispersed and the Brunton's were left puzzled.

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No less bizarrely, but rather sweetly, we were befriended by a Chinese man with his wife and son. When he realised that we were English speakers, he asked if he could "make a friend with you?". We said yes, and while he went off to find a pen to take down our details, his wife went in search of beverages. He returned with a bic and scrap of paper, she with a variety of cold, flavoured teas. In "exchange" for our email address we received 2 bottles of iced tea. A small, inqusitive crowd had gathered around us, with mutterings of "England" when a new member joined. We felt like Z list celebrities. Meanwhile our new friends tried to coax out a telephone number and we had difficulty explaining that we didn't have one as we were travelling. Another bottle was foisted upon us (this time a flavoured milk), but we wouldn't budge. So, we shook hands goodbye and whilst they went to enjoy a meal, we went to drink their hospitality and watch the rest of the opening ceremony in the comfort of our hotel room.

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Pagoda in Guilin

Posted by bruntonal 00:30 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

River Li

semi-overcast 30 °C
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To appreciate some of the reputedly best scenery the Guanxi province has to offer, we took a cruise down the river Li. The irregular limestone peaks, often depicted on Chinese scroll paintings, have been contorted by the elements over thousands of years to create a surreal and oddly shaped landscape. We chose a bonafide Chinese tour over the soft English speaking guided, deluxe food option. Obviously being cultured types and not tight wads, this had EVERYTHING to do with wanting to sample Chinese tourism and NOTHING to do with it being almost half the price.

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On the whole, Chinese people are small, so it was a shame that the tour company couldn't even find a bus big enough to transport us all in comfort to the boat terminal; several people had to stand. We ran into further difficulty when we were dumped off the bus and ushered into a large jewellery store, with obviously no English explanation. Reassuringly however, a number of westerners in other tour groups looked as bewildered as the Brunton's at this unexpected detour. After three quarter's of an hour of desperately trying to keep track of our tour guide (and failing) we were issued with boat tickets and herded along with thousands of others towards the boat launch. What a spectacle 50 flat bottomed boats full of tourists setting off convoy style makes. What a din a small Chinese tour guide with a microphone makes. And we'll tell you something that we don't understand....Chinese, which is why we escaped to the open viewing deck as soon as possible.

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The low, misty clouds blanketing the karst peaks could have imbued a serene moodiness were it not for the constant clicking of cameras, elbows in ribs, cigarette smoke and clearing of throats accompanied by the inevitable gob on the floor. It just left us moody. Still, Lisa does have an irrational phobia of sputum, besides, the Brunton's were just put out that they were largely ignored by the other 98 passengers, who edged them out of their photo's instead of into them. And the views were really fabulous during the 4 hour journey. Along the way we spotted water buffaloes grazing in the shallow banks and lots of locals going about their business in their rowing boats on the river.

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If mass tourism appeals we would suggest the boat ride. If you'd prefer to "be at one with nature" then we'd suggest you make your way to Yangshou (where the cruise ends) by bus and hire one of the many bamboo boats that tout for business at the water's edge, to take a ninety minute cruise on the Li. Apparently this still incorporates the best of the scenery, is cheaper, and ensures you wouldn't have to endure the Brunton's annoying habits.

Posted by bruntonal 23:59 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The Madness of Guangzhou Train Station

overcast 36 °C
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It wasn't the stark contrast from the calm of Hong Kong train station to the bustle of Guangzhou. It wasn't the Brunton's complete ignorance of Chinese symbols, no English signs and the slim chance of having joined the correct line out of the hundreds available. It wasn't the reality of queuing for over an hour, knowing the tickets would be sold out when we got to the counter. It wasn't because the minute the ticket booth opened thousands of Chinese pushed in front, with no invitation from Andyb. It wasn't due to Lisa being verbally abused through a megaphone by an over zealous guard for daring to sit on her backpack. It wasn't even when the young boy in line urinated very close to Andyb's open toed sandals. But it was for the grim fear that we might next witness a Billy Bob squash on the train station floor that we left the madness of Guangzhou train station for the civility of the airline ticket office.

Posted by bruntonal 18:47 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Hong Kong & Macau

semi-overcast 33 °C
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After 2 days in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, Andyb summoned Lisab onto the ferry bound for Hong Kong. This wasn't on account of Macau being a boring place, rather the lush had taken to gambling away the remaining holiday fund in the MGM Grand, one of the many casinos the island offers. Macau is a mixture of old colonial buildings and new sky scraping luxury hotels and offices. It doesn't take long to wander off the tourist trail and into the real life of the locals. Back streets are full of cobblers shops, hardware stores, grocers and people gathered around enjoying a game of Mahjong. So when we weren't betting on 3 "is the magic number" (which incidentally it isn't) we spent our hours noseying around the residential streets and gaping in awe at the high rise flats, replete with washing hanging from the balconies, where most Macau folk live.

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Macau apartment blocks

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One of the oldest casino's in Macau (that Lisab was barred from entering)

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Closest Lisa got to entering casino Lisboa

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The new casino Lisboa dominates Macau's skyline everywhere you go

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They've gone Olympic crazy, even in Macau

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The Fortaleza do Monte

We had enjoyed a spacious double bed roomed hotel in Macau and so were stunned to be faced with the smallest hotel room in the world when we reached Hong Kong (this was officiated by a Guinness Book of Records adjudicator). Although not ones to complain, we did have to refuse the first room offered. It held a single bed that they laughingly tried to pass off as a double. Our digs were located in the ironically named Chungking Mansions - which is a huge concrete block housing guesthouses for the poor and down market shops & restaurants. It's bang in the centre of Kowloon on Nathan Road - the main shopping centre in Hong Kong. Andyb wasn't at all tired of the constant touting for business from the local salesmen offering "a suit sir, for you sir, good sir, half price sir" or "a rolex sir". It was a joy to have them join us for a half a mile walk down the street as they attempted to change his mind from his original and sustained answer of "NO".

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Our Palace

The most attractive part of Hong Kong is the amazing sky line view at the Harbour front. As daylight descends into darkness, the skyscrapers light up like christmas trees. There's even a "light spectacular" conducted every evening at 8pm. Much like the warning before entering onto a rollercoaster though, we wouldn't recommend it for the faint hearted, bad backed, pregnant, young or infirm amongst you. This is due to the thousands of people who jostle, kick and punch their way to the front for the best vista. Better wait until 8:15pm when the crowds disperse, because the lit buildings are just as impressive without the laser, light & music show.

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Hong Kong harbour at dusk

On a relatively clear day we trekked up the Peak (only jossing - the temperature was 31 degrees celsius with a humidity of 99% - we took the tram) to take a look at Hong Kong from above. Again this was an impressive sight, and allows you to grasp just how built up Hong Kong has become. Land is still being reclaimed from the sea; there continues to be new buildings and extensions to existing buildings going up all the time.

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Land reclaimation

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The view from the peak

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Shortly after this photo, Bruce Lee was on his back side, and Brad Pitt ran crying in terror. It took 10 men to escort The B-Meister from the building.

Andyb lost his toyboy title, as his 36th birthday brought him to the same age as his wife (for the next three months). Lisab scoured the Rough Guide's "free things" section to celebrate (happy bloody birthday) and came up with a visit to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, in Hong Kong Park. It's an informative, if sometimes repetitive, museum and gives a thorough insight into China's tea trade. He did get to taste China's finest in the Lock Cha Teahouse next door though. This was a great experience. Whilst Lisab enjoyed a white peony tea, Andyb opted for a (very expensive - well it was his birthday) green tea that was served in a doll's tea pot. They made a real ceremony of brewing it each time. The Brunton's were well impressed and have declared tea as their new hobby, so all are welcome at 244 for a thimble full of cha upon our return. The day was rounded off with a fancy meal, and whilst Andrew enjoyed a Black Sheep beer (his first in 8 months), observers could have mistook it for Lisab's special day, as she ordered apple martini AND had a baked alaska for pudding.

We decided to join thousands of Chinese tourists and headed to Ocean Park for the day. We arrived early and had the rollercoaster to ourselves for the first two goes. We even got to sit in the front car; very thrilling for the Brunton's as it was our first time. As the day got later, the crowds got larger, the temperature hotter and the atmosphere more humid. We could have coped with one variable, but not all of them together. So, after the panda viewing (which meant queueing for 30 minutes and shuffling past them for 3) we gave up and boarded the bus back. This wasn't before we'd witnessed the tourists ooing and awwing at the dolphins and sea lions flapping their fins and flippers in the marine show, and not before we'd fried in the hot seats (that only mad dogs and Englishmen occupied) watching the un-natural event.

After 5 days in the city, we felt like we'd seen enough, besides even the salesmen got bored of asking Andyb if he wanted "a suit sir" and were only going through the motions. It was an obvious wrench to leave the fire hazard that was Chungking Mansions, with the windowless, three quarter bedded, freezing cold or boiling hot (depending on whether the aircon was switched on or off) room that we had called home.

Posted by bruntonal 04:21 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Plain of jars

rain 24 °C
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After a few days wallowing in the laid back atmosphere of Luang Prabang, we chose to explore the area that is commonly known as the "Plain of Jars". We could have taken a public bus to Phonsavan, and took a tour from there, but chickened out when we read of occasional attacks by bandits and insurgents in this province (Xiang Khouang) on public transport. In one case, several people in 2004 were killed by gunmen on this road (including foreign tourists). Although nothing seems to have happened since, and from what we saw, it appeared safe to travel in this area, we decided to take a tour in a mini van from Luang Prabang. We still saw several men with semi-automatic weapons (that appeared over the top for hunting!) on the journey from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng - but they didn't seem to be pointing them at the tourists.

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Typical decor on Luang Prabang's numerous Wats.

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Leaning Buddha in Luang Prabang

The first day was taken up by driving a gruelling 7 hours on winding, vomit inducing mountainous terrain. Although the Brunton's don't really get car sick, we felt decidedly queasy by early evening. We should have skipped tea, not because we felt sick, but because the cuisine in Phonsavan resembled sick. And the following day it made our Norweigian friends actually sick (and gave Lisab a dodgy tummy).

The following day was taken up by a tour of the Plain of Jars sites. They are set amongst beautiful scenery of rolling green hills and farmed fields. Since French archaeological research in the 1930's, the jars (which are sometimes higher than Lisab) are believed to have been produced around two and a half thousand years ago, for the use of funerary urns - as human remains and ashes have been found in some jars. However, the Laos people still like to believe that they were used to store Lao Lao (rice whiskey) or food stuffs. They appear a little elaborate to be used as ancient tupperware though.

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A large number of the jars were bomb damaged during the 2nd Indochina war (1964-1973) but they still amount to several hundred intact jars over numerous locations. Incidentally, this is a relatively new attraction for Laos, as the sites were only cleared of mines and UXO's in 2003 by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). We saw these in action, clearing a field close by. There are a few warnings to stick to the paths, and Andyb was bursting to sneak behind a bush for a pee, but couldn't for fear of losing a leg. Eventually, the Plain of jars sites are aiming for UNESCO world heritage status, but it is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to improve access and increase research regarding the significance of the jars. Little work appears to have been done since the initial French investigations.

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The Brunton's at the jars

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Mine clearance

Talking of the 2nd Indochina war, The Rough Guide tells us that Laos was the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in the history of warfare. Apparently, our friends the Yanks flew 580,944 "sorties" (missions), and dumped a total of 2,093,100 tonnes of bombs on Laos. This is equivalent to one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years being dropped on the locals. Little wonder that the National Museum in Vientiene gives a totally unobjective account of the American involvement in the war.

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You can still see the bomb craters pocketing the landscape today

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Russian tank. The locals had taken the top off to use as part of a fence

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Bomb damaged temple in the old capital of the Xiang Khouang province

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Damaged buddha

The final day of the tour was another arduous winding journey through the beautiful Laos landscape, stopping only briefly to observe the landslides and collapsed roads caused by the heavy rains that had fallen on Laos recently. We were told that the road was completely blocked the day before, and probably still would be but for the several JCB's we passed on our way. We saw lots of over - flooded rice fields, as the river had burst it's banks, resulting in more ducks than workers in the fields.

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Balcony view from our hotel in Vang Vieng. The river had flooded several bungalows and bars

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We had one day in Vientiene and went to see the concrete monstrosity of the Victory Monument. Apparently it's Laos's answer to the Arc de Triomphe.

Posted by bruntonal 04:24 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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