Friday, August 24, 2007

Visiting Seoul and the DMZ!

On our second day in Seoul we visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace (there are 5 dinastic palaces in Seoul alone - it has been the capital for the last 600 years). It is the Palace of Shining Happiness and was built by the founder of the Joseon dynasty (Korea's last dynasty) but it burnt down in 1592 during the Japanese invasions and was not rebuilt until 250 years after. It is still undergoing reconstruction but it was still very nice to visit. Afterwards we visited the centre and the Cheonggye stream. This stream is quite unique because it was actually covered by an expressway until very recently in 2003 when the citizens demanded that the government re-open it! Seoul was becoming a very ugly concrete city at the time and in a way to re-beautify it quite a few parks have been restored along with this stream. It was a really nice experience as you feel like you are in the forest right in the middle of the could take your shoes off and put your feet in the water while just taking your time "people-gazing" :)

Afterwards we continue down towards City Hall and we visited the Namdaemun Market, which is both a day and night market, but it was nice to visit it at night with all the neon lights and restaurant lights all aroudn you. We had a Korean meal there before we made it back to our hotel as the next day we had to get up early to visit the DMZ (demilitarized zone)!!

Visiting the DMZ:

There were a few rules we had to follow if we wanted to go visit the DMZ - by the way, Korea is still considered one of the most dangerous countries since they are still at war, technically, given a peace treaty has never been signed, only a ceasefire. We needed to carry our passport with us and Koreans were not allowed - conflict of interest I guess. Also, there was a dress code we had to follow, however, Im not sure how strict this was...I mean, Jo and I followed the rules (and were therefore left extremely uncomfortable for the morning because we had to wear trousers and t-shirts were not allowed) but most of the other tourists didnt seem to have read the rules as they showed up with shorts, spaghetti tops, etc.
Anyways, we started bright and early and took a tour bus to the DMZ zone and the JSA (Joint Security Area) zone (although we did not visit the JSA as that was an all day tour and more expensive still)...We were taken 55km north of Seoul to the truce village of Panmunjeom. The DMZ is 4km wide and its the most heavily fortified border in the world...when we were getting on the bridge that connects the two sides our guide was explaining to us how there was a gate taht was fortified with dynamite so taht if North Korea was to invade they could blow up the gate so that they would be blocked!
We visited the Peace Bell where South Koreans come to show respect to and honour their ancestors whose graves are on the other side of the border. Afterwards we went to visit the 3rd infiltration tunnel which was discovered in 1978 and had been dug by the North Korean army to infiltrate into Seoul. We walked down 350m and actually walked the length of the tunnel up to the actual DMZ line...
However, before doing this we were shown a propaganda movie (made by the US) about the "future reunification" of Korea...even our South Korean guide thought it was propaganda so you can have an idea. We also passed by the unification village...there are two villages inside the DMZ, surprisingly enough...however, the south village is called Freedom Village as opposed to the north village that is called Propaganda Village, as up to quite recently it was not occupied, it was mostly a ghost town to show how the north was so developed!! (Not sure how much of this is actually true since we were only getting one side of the story....but it is true that while North Korea is more worried about the size of their flag than their citizens food supply the South is prospering at real growth...the flag story is quite funny...on either side of the DMZ there is a North Korean flag and a South Korean the beginning they were at the same height, but one day the South noticed that the North had raised their glaf so they raised theirs in return and so on until it got to the point that the North now holds the Guinness World Record for the highest flag pole in the world and they have to replace their flag every 3 months due to weather disturbances which costs them 3000 dollars each time given the imensity of their flag!!!
Afterwards we were taken to the Dora Observatory from where we can actually see (but not photo) the DMZ line and see the amazing flag poles :) We were able to "steal" a couple of photos while the soldiers werent looking :)
We also visited the Dorasan Railroad station which will link the South with the North...its a big thing for the South and merited a visit from President Bush when it was opened...US presence here is still strong but has dwindled, especially since the war in Iraq.

The whole trip was quite interesting considering it is the only place in the world where we can see an actual DMZ, however, it is becoming more of a tourist attraction than anything else to be honest.

We took it easy when we got back to Seoul and then went out to meet one of Jo's future classmates at BSIS who is at the moment teaching English here in Seoul (it seems South Korea is a very popular place to teach english as they pay extremely well, including your flight over and your apartment!) Brooke took us for a traditional Korean meal where you take off your shoes, sit on the floor (she did warns us it would be uncomfortable but we thought we would give it a try) and eat Kimchi :) Very entertaining!

On our last day we got up a bit late (the night before had been a bit long :) and went to visit the Changdeokgung Palace (also known as the Palace of Illustrious Virtue). This palace was named UNESCO World Heritage in 1997 and therefore we could only visit it with a tour. It was much more opuent than the official palace which we had visited before. This palace took over the official palae when the latter had been destroyed by fire and remained the main palace ever since. Also we were told that one ofthe reasons why the Emperor never returned to the other palace was due to the fact his mother had been assassinated there and he therefore thought the palace was filled with bad omen. Fair enough! It is a huge palace and there are actually separate tours you take if you want to visit the entire thing. It also contains a forest nad lotus ponds inside so it was very nice to visit.

Afterwards we made our way to the Namsangol Hanok Village which is in the centre of Seoul and consists of 5 different yangban (aristocratic) stone, wood and tile houses from the Josean era (the last dynasty era) that have been moved here from different parts of Seoul. When we arrived there was a show with traditional Korean drummers and dancers so we wtched that for a while and then visited the village. It was very well done as the furniture was still intact (might have been copies though :) and it showed how the house formation and life was organized. We also spotted a caligrapher showing his art to some tourists and a musician playing a traditional Korean guitar.

We walked back to our hotel but stopped at the stream first. It was friday night so it was filled with Koreans just taking it easy and enjoying the nature around the stream. They were also showing a Korean film festival that had english subtitles!! So while Jo was busy taking his night photos (his new passion at the moment) I enjoyed watching the people enjoy their friday night and I also got a taste of Korean amateur films :)

We had a nice Korean meal composed of a kind of omellete on top of rice before we headed back home to pack. Although the metro and bus system is really good and organized we found that you could walk quite easily in Seoul as the distance between most places is not that great. We have enjoyed ourselves although we're sure there is a lot more to see and visit in this country, maybe a next trip :)

Thanks for travelling with us and until next time, Anneyong.hi gaseyo!!!

Lots of love,
Jo and Fil

Hello from Seoul in South Korea!!

By the way, we have added photos so do scroll down to check them out and upon our arrival we will add more, of course!!!

So, with the last few hours we had in Hong Kong we decided to go visit the Peak and the Peak Tram. Of course, being the silly couple that we are we decided to do this on the very last day and of course it turned out to be the crappiest day, weather-wise :( So we got up there and unfortunately it was foggy so we couldnt see the city properly, and we went at night too to see the neon life so we were a bit disappointed (I had been there already so Jo was the worst off!)

We made our way to the airport afterwards and to the plane to find that we actaully were given 1st class seats - dont ask me why, I dont know...maybe the plane was overbooked..but who cares!! We had a comfortable (and unfortunately short) 3 hour ride to South Korea where we arrived at 4:30 (South Korea is an hour ahead of China). Of course we couldnt check-in until 12 so we were stuck wandering Seoul until we could check-in and take a nice deserved nap. We visited Jogyesa temple before checking-in...One major difference...the Buddha was smiling here! And also, in South Korea it is polite to remove your shoes at all times (well, when entering most homes, restaurants, and temples at least).

At night, on our way downtown we passed the Admiral Yi Sun-Sin's statue and the Hammering Man statue...two very differing statues as one is old and other very modern...something you should know, by law every skyscrapper needs to have a statue inside or outside of the the entire city is littered with statues which is really nice :)

Seoul is a very developed city and you see it. It is also very clean and becoming more environmental friendly. No more holes in the ground for toilets that's for sure :) Also, Korean, sound-wise, is a lot like Japanese (Korea was invaded and occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945 which was then followed by the Korean Civil War where it divided between the Norht and the South) but I am not sure that is the reason for its similarities...although the food, unique in itself, does have a bit of Japanese influence. Koreans are also very is normal to bow when you greet someone, take your shoes off as a sign of respect and also when they deal with money they have a special way of holding it (for exmaple, in China you have to hand out money whether buying or selling, with both your hands and arms outstretched as a means of giving your entire self in the transaction) while in Korea they give it with one hand but the other holds the elbow of the hand that holds the money and they bow while they are handing you the money...So a very interesting culture indeed :)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Our last days in China!

We are still in Hong Kong but will be leaving for Seoul tonight so we need to enjoy as much of Hong Kong as possible in these last few hours!Yesterday we managed to get up a bit earlier and after breakfast made our way to the island of Kowloon for some exploring. Thanks to the Hong Kong MTR (metro) it was an easy journey -- although expensive...they have the octopus card here, much like the oyster card in London so it is cheaper for those that live here!

First we stopped in Yau Ma Tei to visit the Tin Hau temple there. It was an incense temple, where you could buy huge incense triangles (red or yellow) for your ancestors that you would then hang on the ceiling to burn. We also visited the Chin Lin Nunnery in Diamond Hill with its beautiful lotus could tell it was women that run the place, it was all very clean and very well maintained :) After we strolled through the Lin Nian Garden which is also very nice and seems to be quite recent. Hong Kong has quite a few green spaces for people to "leave" the chaotic city life and just enjoy!

For lunch we went to the Hollywood Plaza's food court - I dont think they get a lot of foreigners there because it was the first time in Hong Kong that we did not see the menus in Chinese so we just had to point and see :) In the Hollywood Plaza there was a huge toy manga convention going on so that was amusing to watch :)

Afterwards we made our way back to Yau Ma Tei to visit the Temple street Night Market which is a really lively place filled with antiques, fakes and just about anything you need! Jo took his tripod there and got quite a few nice photos, with of course, an audience behind him. We also had dinner there at a corner restaurant where they were serving great seafood! Byt the time we reached the end of the island in Tsim Sha Tsui it was already quite late (considering that we stayed in the market for quite a while just to take pictures...correction...for Jo to take pictures :)

Today we are going to visit the Peak and then see what else we can do with the time that is left us!

Next time you hear from us we will already be in South Korea, so until then Zaijian!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

From Macau's glittering casinos to Hong Kong's city playground!

So, before leaving "quiet" Macau for the sprawling Hong Kong busy life we had a chance to visit some of the new casinos of Macau. After we left the internet cafe and had a nice sushi dinner (yes, we are addicted!) we decided to go take a tour of some of the casinos. We visited the Wynn casino (not yet built the last time I was there). Very nice decor with really nice carpet :) Elegant and modern and of course filled with high-end shops like Gucci and Rolex...The casino was, well, a casino although with a Chinese twist. For example, they dont have dice (you know, the ones you always see on TV with people blowing on dice for good luck) instead here they have an automatic dice machine where you have 3 dice and they are enclosed and you have to bet on which numbers will come out. Then you have one that is with lights, another with dominos and so on. Black Jack and baccarat was there and much to Jo's content there was also a roulette table where he amused himself for a while until of course the house won (as I never failed to repeat to him hehehe - dont worry, he didnt bet much!) Afterwards we went to visit the Hotel Lisboa, which is the oldest casino in Macau belonging to the multi-millionaire, Stanley Ho, that was the owner of the gambling monopoly until the government opened up the licenses 3 years ago. Hotel Lisboa will soon have a next door neighbour, Hotel Lisboa II...which is 10x the size of its precedent with the casino encompassing a huge globe! Hotel Lisboa I still lives on however with its loyal gamblers and beautiful prostitutes roaming the halls looking for their next pay...its the only casino where you will still see them :)

The next day we had again a great breakfast with pao com chourico and pastel de nata (hey, when in Macau...) then we visited Fisherman's Warf which was also still under construction the last time I was there...Its a village with buildings from "everywhere" in the world. You have Amsterdam houses and Portuguese monuments, the Roman Coloseum, a volcano, Aladdin's den, and much much more and of course casinos...Its an amusing park for both kids and adults and his again owned by Stanley Ho...Next door we visited the Sands Hotel and casino (which was the only one I had already visited as it was the first foreign casino to have already been built the last time I was there)...That one already looks old next to the Wynn but the entrance is nicer with a huge glass chandelier...The Sands owner is also the one responsible for turning the strip between Taipa and Coloane (for those that dont know Macau consists of 3 islands: Macau, Taipa (which used to be actually the Taipas as there were two but then land was recclaimed form the sae to make 1 but this was about a century ago) and Coloane (which is the lung of the islands as it still very green) into a gaming strip (like Las Vegas) and a copy of The Venetian is about to finish construction in September of this year, which will consist of a wave pool, gondola lake, 3000 rooms and suites, convention centers and a golf course!!! So goodbye old Macau and hello Las Vegas of the East!! :(

After a nice Portuguese lunch (hey, have to leave with something good :) we got the turbojet to Hong Kong and a comfortable 55 minutes after we are disembarking with our bags in the city that never sleeps (they say thats New york but I think we have found a match!!) Our hostel is dead in the centre of everything on Causeway Bay and the first night we made our way to Kai Wan Fonk where the hard workers (mostly foreigners) come to relax and party the night way. Immediately into the walk up (yep, its a street up a hill littered with bars and restaurants) we were surrounded by Indians (big India population here) and Chinese who pushed menus at us to get us to eat at their restaurant. We opted for a Vietnamese Thai restaurant and had gorgeous coconut seafood rice and coconut curry prawns. We also chatted with our neighbours that had this adorable 2 year old (a mix as the mother was chinese and the dad english)...We then proceeded to explore the area and our choice for bars :) We stayed quite a bit and were whisked away by people wanting to take photos of Jo - he had his hair down and now with his big beard he really looks like Jesus so people were having fun just looking at him hehehe At one point we met a couple where she was a banker and he a pilot and they wanted to do what we were doing - travelling, of course, and they were kind enough to buy us drinks so we hang out until we could no longer walk straight and made our way back to our very tiny but very well positioned room :)

Today, well, a bit of a waste, travelling wise, but very lucrative commercial wise hehehe
Tomorrow we will be visiting the Peak (which you reach by a tram that takes you up a huge hill on Hong Kong island - for those who dont know Hong Kong is composed of many islands which are all connected either by metro or ferry)...

One thing to say about Hong Kong, it is very organised...people queue to take the bus, the metro works great (although it is the most expensive one we have taken so far since in China). They have electrical trams that are high in height but very lean in figure (they dont have much space here so like the skyscrapers I guess everything is trying to be lean to conserve space hehe) they are really cool to watch though, you keep waiting for the moment they topple over! Also, it seems everyone is fashionable. Girls and boys alike have the latest clothes, bags, phones, etc...I feel out of place in my travelling clothes!! Oh, well, its really nice to look at in any case :)

Well, thats all for now, hoping that tomorrow will be a more cultural experience!!

Lots of love,
Jo and Fil

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Airport delays, Guangzhou and tropical rainstorms to Shenzhen and Macau

On the 13th we had a plane to catch from Chengdu to Guangzhou. We chose to take a flight because by train it would have taken us 35 hours to reach the south of China where we had to make our way to Hong Kong - where we depart. The flight was scheduled for 10:35 am and we got to the airport at 9:00....Well, lets just say that instead of arriving in Guangzhou at 12:20 as scheduled, we arrived instead at 7:30 pm...yep, we had a 7 hour delay!!!! If we were in Europe we would have been able t o argue, get our flight rerouted, get our money back, whatever...but here, we just waited and smiled :) Every hour I would go to the nice lady at the gate and ask in mandarin "what time flight leaves" which she would then tell me "no time" meaning they had no idea because the plane, due to extremely bad weather, was still stuck in Chongqing. It was amusing however, after 4 hours wait, to see the Chinese passengers get up and start shouting and pointing at the stewardesses (I think I would be screaming too if I could speak fluent mandarin hehehe) We finally were told " in 20 minutes" which actually turned out to be another hour and half of waiting and at 5:15 we were off :) I also had the bright idea to call the hostel we had booked and write them an email to make sure they didnt away our room...they kept asking "you are sure you arrive today" :)

We made it to Chengdu and we got on the airport express ( I was hoping for a nice spiffy train but no it was a regular bus) and on the way to the hostel we witnessed some mighty rain - lets just say that when the bus drove through water holes every other car around it got soaked :)
Our hostel was quite nice (also brand new) and it was facing the river on the other side of Shamian island - which used to be clsoed off to chinese (literally, during the 18th centure they had gurads to keep them out) and it was where the foreigner merchants had their warehouses and lived. The street of the hostel was also littered with bars and clubs, all with at least 3 pretty chinese girls dressed in ball gowns in order to entice people to come in :) We arrived sooo late that we were unable to do anything so we just took it easy and watched Star channel which had Prison Break and Seinfeld hehehe

The next day we visited Qinping Market - much to my hesitation as the Lonely Planet did not reccomend it saying we saw some pretty disturbing things such as dogs, monkeys and cats that were sold for consumption...well, we did see some disturbing things but not as bad as that. The Chinese are big believers in their own medicine and they use some pretty strange and exotic ingredients to create it, like tigers teeth, claws and bones so we saw a couple of those - like a leg still connected to its claws!! They also sell starfish and seahorses by the bags (big bags!) and although that is all forbidden now they still sell them because Chinese people find it a lot more exotic to use tigger bones instead of rat bones for their medicine - can you believe it!!!! There were also thousands of different mushrooms of all shapes and sizes, ginger roots and fish scales and much much more. We did see live animals as well, such as plastic tubs of scorpios, big and small, and turtles, big and small and different shells - some I believe are on the endangered list :( As for cats and dogs, there were plenty of them but they were all for sale as pets not as food and they were sooooo cute :) There were also thousands of fishes, some exotic some not, also for sale as pets, so I left the market a little more happy than I thought I would be :)

We had planned to see more of the city and its sights but the tropical rain storms did not help and we ended up being stuck in a commercial street - oopppss...when in China, shop, shop shop!! There was actually a store called "Why pay more"!! hehehe

As for the food, as I already knew, you cant go wrong in the South. The food is great!! It also reminds you a lot more fo the chinese food you get back home because most of the overseas chinese come from the Guangdong province (although it is the richest in China - so a bit of a puzzler!) Again, we headed back to the hostel quite early in the evening becasue we still needed to check out hostel in Hong Kong and Macau - our next destinations after stopping for a mad shopping fest in Shenzhen - shopping paradise!!


There is not much to say to be honest - we arrived at 2:30, stored our luggage in the bus station, bought our ticket for Zhuhai where we had to cross the border to Macau and after a nice meal made our way to the shopping plaza where we had time and money to spend :) We still managed to almost miss our bus but by 7:30pm we were on our way to Zhuhai.


We arrived at 10pm and made our way to the border crossing ( Jo would have been happy to stay the night so we could still do more shopping the next day - we only had a one-entry visa to China and once you enter Hong Kong or Macau it is considered as leaving China and you would need another visa to re-enter) Luckily, after much convincing we made our way to custmos...Leaving China was a bit tricky for Jo - the woman just did not want to believe that his passport was real!!! She checked her country list, she looked carefully at each page of his passport and then she even passed some special binoculars (that must see the electronic reading or something)...she did this at least twice before finally stamping his passport and letting us go on our way :) We were a bit weary because we did buy quite a few fake dvds in Shenzhen and the penalty is quite high for that if you are caught but no worries, we made it to the Macau border where Jo this time got done faster than me :)

After trying to find a hostel that I had seen on the internet and being sooo dead tired we decided to splurge out in Macau and are staying at the Sintra Hotel :) We arrived quite late so most regular restaurants were closed - no luck for Jo that wanted his pastel de nata hehehe.

Today - after an alarm scare ( When I woke up I saw 1pm on our clock when I had put thealarm for 9am!! But luckily it was the clock that was wrong and not me) It was still a lazy start with an even lazier breakfast. We headed to a Portuguese cafe and had pao com chourico, 3 pasteis de nate, um guardanapo, um sumo compal, a coffee and a hot chocolate (for the portuguese reading this you understand :) By the way, for those that dont know, Macau was a Portuguese colony - we were actaully the first foreigners to get a concession in China and it lasted for about 500 years until we gave it back to China in 1999. There is still a lot of Portuguese influence in Macau and you do find some Macanese and Chinese people speaking it. There are also architectural left-overs such as cobble streets, squares, gardens and churches. Today we visited the Ruins of St. Paulo, the Fort, Largo do Camoes and the Garden, Barra and the A-Ma Temple, the Macau Tower (where we saw a guy bungee jumping) and of course, Leal Senado and its surroundings. Unfortunately for us while we were on our way to Lou Lim Ioc Garden, which is my personal favorite in Macau, it started to downpour and so we have hidden ourselves in shops and now the internet cafe!

I havent been to Macau since 2005 when my dad passed away. First impressions, well, next to Hotel Lisboa, which was once the biggest building in Macau Stanley Ho is now just finsihing is second Hotel Lisboa which is just huge. The Wynn Casino in front is also finished and there is also now the MGM Grand. We have yet to see Fisherman's Warf - we'll probably go tonight...Not sure if we'll make it to Coloane and Taipa but I would have loved to see how the "Las Vegas" strip is coming out - Macau is now a paradise for gamblers!!!

Anyways, that is all for today but hope to give you some news soon...We'll be in Hong Kong by tomorrow night in any case :)

Lots of love,
Jo and Fil

Leshan and the Big Buddha!

Hello again after a couple of days of silence. We are now in rainy Macau but there is still a lot to say before we get to that part :)

After the Pandas (which were too cute for words!!! Did I mention we saw the new born ones as well!!!) We visited a little bit of the city of Chengdu. It was just a big city like most of China's sprawling cities (including the suburds it has a population of 13 million!!!) We visited the Wenshu Temple from the Tang Dynasty. It was like most other Chinese temples (we are getting a bit tired of visiting temples to be honest) but is was quite nice and the g arden area was quite extensive and they had a tea house in the middle where we could relax for a bit in the smouldering heat :)

Afterwards we made our way down to the Tianfu Square where we wanted to take a picture with the biggest statue of Mao in China - well, its gotta be done :) We hung around there for a while and then, for dinner we found a japanese restaurant that did buffet for 7.5 euroes!! YES, you read me right a BUFFET of sushi for 7.5 - you cant get a better deal than that - only one downsize, Jo wasnt feeling too good so we werent able to properly enjoy the buffet. Also, we arrived at 8 and it closed at 9 (as the waitresses never failed to stress hehehe) Well, it was still good sushi :)

The next day we woke up early to go to Leshan, which is another city 2 hours south of Chengdu and home to the biggest buddha statue in the worl (well, now after the Taliban destroyed those 2 buddhas in Afghanistan Leshan is now the successor to the biggest buddha).

When we got to Leshan we made our way to the ferries - we had the opportunity to see the Buddha from the river - the Buddha is encaved so the only way to see it properly is from across it and the only way is by boat - it was quite amazing! We had seen photos of it through some power points sent through internet but it is something else to see it up close! And the thousands of people that were going down stairs carved out of the mountain to see the buddha up close was impressive ( we went on a sunday unfortunately, so we got the brunt of chinese tourists!) There are also two guardian soldiers carved out of the mountian opposite side of the Buddha which you can also only see by boat so it was a very good idea to take the ferry :)

After we came back to the entrance of the Buddha park - by the way it is a huge park complex which takes an entire day to visit properly!! Jo and I wanted to go down to the Buddha ( our fellow travellers were a bit weary on the legs so they opted to just visit the park) well, to be honest when we saw the queue of people that were waiting to go down the stairs to see the Buddha we gave up on the idea as well - we had at least a 2 hour wait in front of us!!!! DAmn the authorities for opening up tourism rights in China, just kidding hehehe

Well, we still got to see the buddha (thank goodness we had done the boat!) and the park was really nice to visit as well. We visited the Dafo Temple and the pagoda and just waled around the park (it still took us 2 hours to visit it and we didnt even see everything!!) Afterwards we had a nice meal (oh, the fish was delicious!!) with our driver (we had arranged the trip with our hostel) and our fellow travellers before heading back to Chengdu where we just enjoyed the night and took it easy in the town center :)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

From Ganzi to Kanding to Chengdu!!

Hey guys, we are back in civilisation!! So hot showers and nice meals that wont leave you so sick that you're begging your mum to come help you hehehe!

Our last night in Ganzi was interesting, culinary wise. But first we apologise for not having put any photos as promised but we went back to the hotel to get another card because the ATM machine was not taking our other cards and we had almost no money left. And while in the hotel we turned on the TV to find out that in Beijing in Tiananmen Square they were doing the countdown to the 1 year until the Beijing Olympics and it was a huge show with dancers and singers and documentaries (and translated into english!!) so we ended up watching it and so when it was over it was already too late to go back to the internet so sorry!! Anyways, as for our culinary experience...we went out looking for a restaurant, there were a couple of food stands and it looked good but there were no seats so we had to go into a small restaurant. The owners were muslim and as always I pointed to some characters on our guide book that show food and she said something that I didnt understand...we saw them take out a chicken out of the freezer and then we hear numerous cuttings...we keep wondering what is in store for us when in arrives a plate with the entire chicken cut up into small pieces with the head and the feet and everything except the actual meat!!!! We swear they have never either eaten a chicken before or never seen how you are supposed to cut it!!! There was nothing edible and Jo kept saying "they must have taken out the white meat and kept it for themselves!!" so we tried our best and luckily there is always rice but we ended up our last night hungry and eating yet again cookies in our hotel room hehehe!
The next day we got an early bus to Kanding and we were joined by an American couple from Colorado that were doing a year's travels all over the world so that made the journey go faster :) Especially since our bus had problems with the radiator and the brakes (not the best when you are going up and down mountains!!!) As always the scenary was beautiful, we are really sorry that we dont have more time in China because we would have loved to stay in some of these villages just for a couple of days to do some trekking or visit better!

We were also worried because our bus took longer than it was supposed to because some parts of the road were still being constructed and we werent able to take out money in Ganzi and we were down to our last 1 bai (100 yuan = 10 euros) and we still had to buy tickets from Kanding to Chengdu and plus the guide told that there was no ATM in Kanding and that the bank closed at 5! So you can imagine our worry... we made it into town at 7 and on the way in we kept looking both right and left for an ATM, just in case our guide was already outdated (seeing how fast things grow in China!!)...Luckily our guide was super outdated for Kanding and as soon as we arrived and I asked where we could find an ATM (just in case) and we were immediately told where :) And after while walking towards a hostel we found many others!! Our guide told us taht Kanding was a bigger town but still very Tibetan and rustic...well, we found ourselves in a big city instead! And for the first time we had to stay in a dormitory (we paid 2 euros each for our beds!) because there were no spaces in the other hotels and because the city had changed so much so had the prices!!

We didnt do much in Kanding to be honest - it was the first time we didnt take any photos!! - and plus we went to eat and I got sick again!!!

We left immediately the next day to Chengdu...we got on the bus and it wasnt leaving on time and at one point a woman comes in and says something...some people get out so I tell Jo to get out too to see if its something to do with the bags...when he doesnt come back after 10 minutes I go outside to see whats happening and I see everyone looking at Jo and this other guy who had a bike...what happened was that the guy was taking too much luggage space with his bike and they were threatening to make him stay in Kanding...and worst he didnt know how to take apart his bike, so in comes Jo to save they day :) He was able to take apart the bike into pieces and get it to fit into the luggage space! The Chinese guy was very grateful after that :)

This was the best bus ride so far because the road was all new and a tunnel had been made that cut the ride into a comfortable 6 1/2 hours :)

When we arrived in Chengdu Jo had again to help the Chinese guy put his bike back together. The guy was embarassed...he kept saying "you are foreigners in China and you are helping me!", he wanted to take us out to dinner or help us find a hotel, poor guy :)

Taxis in Chengdu are terribly hard to find, especially during rush hour, we had to wait for 30 minutes with our bags on our backs, and it was raining and we had to "fight" with other chinese for the taxis and plus we didnt know the address of the hostel we were staying at because it was not in our guide!! So, when we finally got a taxi I had to say in mandarin "we do not know the address, can you please call this number and ask", the first taxi that stopped for us tried but he got no answer so we had to find another one, most didnt want to bother, but we finally got a nice guy that called and got the address!! They keep telling me my mandarin is very good but the worst is taht the accents are so different in every place that it is hard to understand them even if it is easier to make myself understood!!!

The hostel is brand new (some of it is still under construction) but it is super comfortable!! And it serves western food (im sorry if that sounds bad but when you have been sick or eating mountain food for a week you really dont mind getting something your stomach is used to!!)

Today we went to see the pandas!!!! That was great and we got to see baby pandas as well...they are soooo cute. The adult pandas just lay around sleeping but the younger ones were playing with each other and eating bamboo shoots...we got tons of pictures (which hopefully we will put up soon!!) Now we are going to visit a bit of the city but we have been told there is nothing special...
Tomorrow we go to Leshan to see the biggest Buddha in the world!

So, until then, Zaijian!!

lots of love,
Jo and Fil

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

From Yushu to Ganzi via Sershu

Hello guys!

Thanks for all the commentaries, its nice that you keep us company on the road....keep them coming :)

We managed to get a bus out of Yushu, it wasnt that hard after all hehehe but before that we did a bit of exploring around Yushu.
It is truly beautiful here, we are constantly surrounded by mountains and Tibetans...we dont stop saying "Tashi Delek" to everyone -- our guidebook said that's "hello" in Tibetan but it actually means "good luck" literally and that's what they say when they pass someone :)
In Yushu we visited the Wencheng Princess Temple, which is 20km from the city and its where Princess Wencheng paused on her way to marry King Songsten Gampo of Tibet. The monks there were very nice and kept telling us to look aroud.
Around it lived nomads with their yaks so on the way back (we decided to walk back for a bit since there wasnt much else to do and the landscape was beautiful) we ran into some young monks playing football - who were more than happy to pose for our pictures - and we also saw a couple of nomad families having lunch next to their tents and yaks :)
After we had walked for and hour and a half some monks on a 4x4 stopped to give us a ride back to town :)

Eating was a challenge there since the menus were all in characters and no pictures and my chinese reading it too limited - i can distinguish rice and types of meat but other than that its too much hehe - so while in Yushu we stocked up on dry noodles...just add water hehehe

After "lunch" we went to visit the Sengze Gyanak Mani which is one of the largest mani walls in Tibet, founded in 1715 and it consists of around 20 billion mantras (prayers) that are carved into stone!! People walk around this gigantic wall for hours chanting and praying. Quite impressive to see!!

In the town of Yushu there is also a giant statue of King Gesar of Ling, a revered Tibetan warrior-god whose deeds are remembered in the longest epic poem in the world . The day before we had also visited the Jyekundo (another name for Yushu) Dondrubling Monastery...we didnt see many monks there but it was nice to just look around :)

Yesterday we had a full day of travelling! We got the bus to Sershu at 8:30 (after being at the pick up spot at 7 just to make sure we had a place!!!). As always we talked with our fellow travellers...there was a Mongolian woman married to a Tibetan that spoke very good english and told us that she was a Chinese Literature teacher back in Xining. There was also a policeman on board carrying his little pistol. He was travelling with his family and woulndt stop offering us sunflower seeds. There was also a monk sitting behing us who told that he had been in Lhasa and was once stopped because he did not have a passport and was made to spend a year in prison because of this! This had been in 2004 and now he was on his way to Sershu to get a passport so he could go to India to study. So, along with the stunning scenary it was a very interesting journey (not to mention that our seat wasnt attached and so we kept moving back and forth with the bus eheheh)

We arrived in Sershu 4 hours later and immediately found a minivan to take us to Ganzi - we are running out of days so we are trying to make this part of the journey shorter so that we can enjoy the south of China as well. We ate first and then had a beautiful but agonizing 61/2 hour ride. I forgot to mention that on the way from Xining to Yushu we also passed a bit of the desert with sand dunes and everything. Now, on the way to Ganzi we passed beautiful valleys and snow capped mountains. We saw little animals scurring about (we think it was either baby squirrels like Chip and Dale ffrom Disney or baby bunnies), we also saw a beaver! Many horses and yaks as well. The scenary was littered with nomads shepperding their yaks. We were able to stop a couple of times to take pictures -- our driver was nice enough :) However, by the time we had done 4 hours by back was killing me and by the time we arrived in Ganzi I could hardly walk hehe!!

Ganzi is a huge Tibetan/Han city (but somehow our guide doesnt give us a map so we have to go around asking wehre everything is) . We are always being careul to say "Ni hao" to the Han and "Tashi Delek" to the Tibetan!! We leave again tomorrow morning for Kanding - the last stop on the way to Chengsu where we will prbably catch a plane to get to Guangzhou - so today was mostly spent visiting the city. We spent 4 hours inside the Ganzi Temple. We arrived there around noon and were able to see the monks eating (there are around 500 monks there!!) and then we were invited by the cooks to eat as well hehehe! We had rice with vegetables and of course cilli (they cant live without the stuff -- on our way up to the temple we saw a woman giving out bowls of what looked like white gelatin with chilli on it, I asked to try and it was actaully quite nice but again spicy!!!) Anyways, we "talked" with the monks for a while and they gave us Tibetanb tea to drink - I wouldnt really recommend it a second time, it is made out of butter!! After lunch and exchange addresses so we cant send the photos we took we kept walking around the temple and everytime another monk spotted us they would invite us to sit and have tea or water or candy :) Thats how we managed to spend 4 hours there hehehe At the end we saw them doing some kind of sport they call "pianji" but unfortunately our phrasebook does not have it... it consisted of them saying something towards someone else and then slapping their hands really hard! Quite amusing to watch :)

Here we are really in nature, we keep bumping into cows and yaks -- yaks are afraid of us but most cows let us come near and touch them - dont worry we carry and antibacterial gel with us all the time hehehe

We will add some pictures today so no stress :)
Until next time, Kale Shoo!! (Goodbye in Tibetan hehehe)

Love, Jo and Fil

Sunday, August 05, 2007

From Xining to Yushu

Yesterday we took a 20hour bus ride from Xining to Yushu. The bus was a sleeper bus (Jo had already taken one in India but it was my first time) - it was quite comfortable,we had one window seat and one middle so we keep switching back and forth everytime Jo wanted to stick his head out the window to take pictures. The first 10 hours were great, the scenary was amazing with all the yaks, tibetan nomads and beautiful mountains and lakes. We did feel the effects of the altitudes (at one point we were above 4000m). However, things went downhill when we stopped at 22:00 to have dinner. There were some Han Chinese on the bus who invited us to have dinner with them.We had already ordered somethingbut we joined them anyways. Then of course followed the inevitable exchange of conversation. Also I noticed that between Tibetan and Han they dont mix much. We had a pretty normal meal but somehowit didnt hit our stomachs well so I spent the remaining 5 1/2 hours cringing on the bus and I was sick at least 4 times (good thing I had the window seat!!!) I kept the window open all the time so this morning my face was completely red from the cold. Jo was sick as well but fortunately less than me.

We arrived in Yushu in the dead of the night and had to go around finding a hotel. This morning (well,afternoon actually because we had to catch up from the lack of sleep and food sickness) we had a look about town. Yushu is 97% Tibetan so people are actually dressed in Tibetan attire which was nice to see. Also it is a mountain town and completely surrounded. We are having trouble however trying to find a way out of the city.There are no more buses to Ganzi (which is on the way to Chengdu) on the day that we want so the only way is to get up very early to get the bus to Serchu (also on the way) but you cant buy tickets in advance so its really a matter of luck to find seats. We are still pondering whether to stay here one more day or move on down to"civilisation". The scenary is beautiful and the people are friendly but conversation is very hard and our guide book hasnt spent as much time researching this area as the others so we are a bit weary and ready to get back to where we can be understood and where we can buy train tickets. Not to mention that as much as I like Sichuan food you can get a bit tired of spicy food!!!

So,hopefully the next post will be a bit more optimistic!
Until then, Zaijian!
Jo and Fil

Friday, August 03, 2007

from Xi'an to Xining via Lanzhou

Before anything else, we have put some photos now in the blog so dont forget to scroll down to earlier posts...also you should keep taking a look at the observations post as that is for all the little observations we keep making all over China :)

Right, so after that very comfortable train ride into Xi'an we were now facing very different conditions... We thought we had booked soft-seats (especially since the woman at the ticket counter kept repeating "soft-seat" and me saying "shi" all the time) but we ended up passing a very uncomfortable, yet very amusing, 7 hours on a hard-seat train. As soon as we managed to pass all the standers (you can buy standing tickets on Chinese trains and take peoples seats for 5 minutes everytime someone gets up to go to the toilet!!) we found our seats and then we had help from our fellow travellers to get our bags up or under the seats I was immediately told that I was 25 years ld by a man sitting opposite me! He, however, failed to guess Jo's age - they seem to ahve more difficult because of his beard hehehe. We spent quite a few hours "talking" to our neighbours and exchange information and little tidbits...most of the time it was through hand gestures but we did get to practice our mandarin quite a lot. Jo had trouble sleeping though, which made it hard for me to sleep since we couldnt lower our seats and had to relly on each other's shoulders for pillows.

After a very tiring ride (they also dont turn off the lights in this hard sleeper wagon and it seems Chinese people have little need for sleeping as they just kept talking through the entire journey!!) we had an hour to wait in Lanzhou for our next train to Xining -- well, we thought it was an hour but they rushed us into the train just so that we could wait inside instead of outside!! There again we engaged in conversation with the other travellers (actually they always start the conversation and we just ge sucked into it hehehe)...This ride was quite pleasant but again hard-seat....Jo managed to sleep through most of it. We were going up through mountain passes and the sky was bright blue so it was quite a difference from the cities :)

In Xining:

Apart from having my mobile phone stolen 5 mintues after using at an internet cafe (luckily it wasnt something more valuable and my Belgian Sim card is still safe!!) which put a bummer on the city right on the first day, we still managed to amuse ourselves, especially in the cuisine department.

Xining is a mountain town and its population is mostly muslim. Also, the majority of people are no longer Han but from other minorities. The faces became a bit more "western" and people have clearer eyes...Of course, there was inevitably a KFC!

We went to the night food market which was an alley filled on both side with stalls showing uncooked food - such as squid and fish on a stick, all kinds of seafood, vermin and meat- which they then cook for you. We ate that night for less than 2 euros for both!! We first went without Jo's camera - big mistake of course and we had to go back to the hotel to get it cause it was just too good to miss :) We were there for about 2 hours eating at the same time that Jo took pictures with his tripod and people kept coming up behing him to see what he was doing.

We then had a really nice steaming bowl of different kinds of noodles with dumplings and vegetables and meat all mixed up (which was also spicy of course - although I did keep saying "qing buyao tai la" which means "please, not too spicy!" hehehe)...We thought we would keep taking pictures until we reached the end of the alley but it seems that some Xining guys had other plans for us when they grabbed Jo and me, made a shot gesture with their hand and said "you drink!" They took us to one of the food stalls, put a pint of beer in front of us and said "cheers" then all I saw was the big guy drinking it all at once with Jo following! We spent a good hour with them and Jo downed at least 3 pints with the big guy! At the same time they put in front of us the most disgusting food we had ever seen - sheep's feet (literally) and vermin (or bugs however you like it) and said "EAT!!" Of course we were obliged, I wasnt able to have the sheep's feet - there was literally nothing to eat other than bone and fat! Jo made an effort and managed to eat a bit of it. When it came time to eat the vermin (which, by the way they would not eat except for the fat guy that kept saying "Me, Xining, Number 1, Men!!!") we both ate - it was disgusting!!! I could hardly swallow it and had to down quite a lot of beer to help it down and Jo, since he was sitting next to the fat guy, had to eat at least 3 or 4! We were surrounded by them, quite enjoying our reactions to the food hehehe - we also listened to 2 little girls play traditional Xining songs. we had to promise profusely that we would call them again today and go to the night market for another round of beers and vermin -- however, we decided to take it easy tonight as tomorrow we have a 20 hour bus ride ahead of us and it wouldnt be too nice to do it on an upset stomach!
Today we took a tour with Mr. Niu, a very nice man (also the one that took us from the train station to the hotel yesterday). He is very proud to have his name mentioned in the last edition of the Lonely Planet - China :)

Using public buses we went to visit the Nan Men Gorge Lake - on the way there Mr. Niu went out of the bus to buy us ice cream and to our surprise he gave us pea-flavoured ice cream!!!! Yes, PEA-FLAVOURED ICE CREAM - with bits of real peas inside!!! Needless to say we had a hard time finishing it, but we did :)
The Nan Men Gorge Lake wasnt as big as the one in Lahdahk (but then again, not many are!) but it was surrounded by beautiful mountains. It was really good to be out in the fresh air and enjoy a bit of the countryside. Afterwards we went to visit the Temple where the 7-year old Dalai Lama lives (meaning the next in line to be the 15th Dalai Lama!!!) and we actually got to meet him, although he didnt smile much, it seems that since his family can no longer visit him he has turned quite serious (well, who wouldnt at 7!!)!
We then had lunch with a Tu minority family...The meal was delicious but they kept serving us more and more! They even made me dress up like a Tu minority woman so that we could take pictures! After the huge but delicious meal we went to visit yet another temple...the Bo'er Temple - this temple, which is now 2 temples, used to be just one but Tibetan people decided that they wanted their own temple and so now there is one for the Tu minority and another for the Tibetan people!
Tomorrow we will be on our way to Yushu where we hope to explore a bit more of the countryside before heading back down to Han territory and city life :)

Since we no longer have a cell phone you guys can no longer contact us that way (I will be buying a new phone in Hong Kong where tech equipment is cheaper) so you'll just have to keep watching this space as it is not easy to make international calls from here (as opposed to India and Central America!)

Zaijian for now!
Jo and Fil

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Xi'an and the Terracota Army

After our super comfortable deluxe train ride we arrived in Xi'an - which I had also visited in 1999.
It is amazing what 7 years can do to a city in booming China!! 7 years ago Xi'an had nothing really to offer in terms of comfort - it was just a rural village that became famous because of the 1964 findings of the Terracota Army from the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty by a farmer that was digging an irrigation well.
The first time there in 1999 driving was an adventure as they werent very mindful of traffic signs, now everything is organised and quite westernised as well. You have shopping malls everywhere, including again all the major food brands.

The first day, after taking car of all the bueaucracies and figuring out our next move after Xi'an we visited the Bell and Drum Tower which are in the center of town and are now surrounded by huge shopping centres. Then we went to visit the Temple of the 8 Immortals (founders of Taoism). We followed this with a visit to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Again, 7 years ago there was nothing around this beautiful pagoda, now there is a park area with a huge fountain lake in the middle and the pagoda is now surrounded by a "cultural emporium" (most of it still in construction). It looks quite nice to be honest but it is all to induce you to shop while you visit cultural heritage...we had fun hanging about the fountain lake as it was crowded with Chinese people trying to cool off from the heat. Jo of course used the opportunity to take out his tripod and take as many pictures as possible which then gave me the opportunity to take pictures of all the chinese that hang behind Jo to see what he is doing ;)

The hostel we stayed in was quite nice and filled with backpackers - which was actually quite nice since we have been surrounded by Chinese tour groups for the last couple of days! This place also had free internet and really nice breakfasts :)

The next day we booked an english-speaking tour (we're not falling for it twice! hehe) with our hostel to visit the Banpo Neolithtic Village ruins, the Terracota soldiers factory and the Terracota Army resting place. I remembered it quite well from the last time and what I remember the most was that there werent that many tourists visiting the palce at that time - this time around it was crowded it Chinese tourists and this time they actually allowed us to take photos which was time was completely forbidden (try telling a China man that he cant take pictures - you'll probably come out of it with a black eye hehehe) Jo wasnt too impressed - mainly because it was so crowded and they didnt let him use his tripod hehee...Oh yeah, this was also the first time we saw the sky (it was blue and sunny) after 8 days of being in China!!

We met 2 french girls on the tour and afterwards went out for dinner with them to a place recommended to them by friends that had lived in Xi'an - it was a huge wooden restaurant with animal fur rugs on the walls but they had really good dumplings! :)

After that we hightailed it to the hotel because we still needed to get out bags and head to the train station for the next leg of our trip - the road less travelled - whcih consists of going to the northwest above Tibet and down to Sichuan Province.

An aside about Xi'an - even though it had more tourists (well maybe it wa because it was smaller so it was easier to see them) the people there seemed to be more curious about us and more surprised when we spoke mandarim with them. I really enjoyed Xi'an - it has the conveniences of a city but still small enough to be peaceful.

Next stop Xining via Lanzhou...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Exploring the Great Wall

Firstly, I forgot to mention quite a few things that we have already done or have happened to us.

In Shanghai I forgot to mention that we visited the Jinmao Tower (the tallest in China - but not for long as they are building 2 taller ones right next to it - we got quite a few pictures of the contruction workers from the Jinmao Tower)

In Beijing, I forgot to mention that because of the 2008 Olympics the entire city is under construction and renovation...the hotel we were staying in was on a market street (and was also a sex shop street!) and the entire market is being torn down to make way for a snazzier and more tourist-friendly upper-class market. So most of the people working in these market stalls will have to go back to their home towns without compensation, as they only rent the space).

I also forgot to mention on saturday, after visiting the Forbidden City and the rickshaw ride we were left at the end of Behei Park where there were people offering massages ( we couldnt resist :) and there was an old man writing chinese characters with a huge brush and water on the pavement - after he spotted us he gave me the brush to write (well, I couldnt remember most of my characters even though I had an exam a month ago so I just wrote "wo shi hen hao" I am very well" :) well, the guy was happy! Afterwards, we got into a taxi to go to yet another photography shop (Jo is addicted!!) and our taxi got into an accident!!! He hit another car while changing lanes - quite interesting to watch, at first they werent mad, then they became mad, then the police came, and then they shook hands!

So, I think that is all I have forgotten so on with the trip :)

We went to the Great Wall - We had to get up at 3:40 in the morning because the guy with whom we booked the tour told us that the bus left at 5:00 (we wanted to see the sunrise in the wall so we said why not - however that was not what was in store for us!) Once we got on the bus and it started to move, ten minutes after it was stopping again - we didnt understand why but we followed the crowd - It is when you are standing around Tiananmen Square at 5 in the morning to witness the rising of the flag that you comprehend just how many chinese there are!! We were two needles in a hay stack among them!!!

- we were silly enough to book a tour by ourselves (meaning not going to a foreigners travel agency) and we ended up being the only waiguo ren (foreigners) on the bus!! Quite amusing, especially when we were trying to find out at what times we had to be back for the bus. We had a couple of "english" speaking chinese on the bus that would help us so we made a few friends (especially when they needed to open a bottle on the bus and we were the only ones with a swiss army knife :)
The weather was crap - estremely foggy (as opposed to 1999 when it was blue skies!!!) so we went up one side of the wall and took a couple of photos - Jo went as far as we were allowed but since the weather wasnt helping we didnt hang about long. After (as with all chinese tours) we visited shops (one was a jade shop and another a candy shop - I would like to know what commission the guides make when they take us there) Chinese candy is, well, different :)
Afterwards, instead of visiting the Ming Tombs as promised we were taken to the Ming Dynasty Museum - all made of realistic and well made wax works telling the story of the Ming Dynasty from rise to fall - that was quite interesting and luckily for us each work had an explanation in english so we didnt have to follow the guide and pretend to understand what she was saying!

When we got back to Beijing we still managed to visit the White Pagoda, where we ended up witnessing an amazing thunderstorm. On the way back we found that we couldnt take the normal route because there was a huge army celebration happening inside Tiananmen Square and all the roads were closed around it - we saw it on TV this morning from Xi'an :)

Our super deluxe train was leaving for Xi'an at 21:36 and we were told not to be at 8:30 we figured it was a good time to head for the station - that was another adventure - no taxi would stop for us, even when they stopped to let people off I would go beg them and they would still say no - so we were forced to take a rickshjaw but Beijing is huge (and the map will fool you!!) so I told the guy to go fast (we dont have a photo but imagine us both in a rickshaw with our 2 big bags and our 2 small backpacks - we couldnt see a thing!) The guy was trying his hardest but when we told him the train was at 9 (just to make sure) he said we needed a taxi so then he spent 10 minutes while on the rickshaw trying to get a taxi to stop us - I kept saying that they dont like us but fortunately he was able to get one and we made it to the station on the time!!

All the time we feel like needles in hay stacks - there are just sooooo many of them!!! The station was packed!
But once we got into our super deluxe 2 person suite (thats the last time and only time that will happen!!) we were finally able to relax and let our feet take it easy for a while :) We even had our own private bathroom and tv hehehe

Observations Post

1 -Everything in China is HUGE!! Literally everything...I dont really know if they know how to construct small here. Also, Chinese people are mostly very nice and they enjoy it when we try to speak with them in only problem is that they answer back too fast and I have to keep asking them to repeat themselves until I actually get it, otherwise our favorite saying at the moment is "wo bu dong" (I dont understand) or "bu yao, xiexie" (no, thank you!) - we have been using those a lot. Back home we're used to the "chinese shops" where you can buy everything, well you can think of China as a big Chinese shop because there is nothing here you cant buy!

2 - I was in China the first time in 1999 and let me tell you that when we came there werent that many tourists and most importantly, you could still see the sky of most cities. Today the mass of tourists are actually Chinese - with the economic boom they can now afford to travel everywhere and en mass! And for the sky, the amount of pollution also caused by the economic boom has not done much for the skyline of the cities.

3 - In the cities there is not much difference from our own western cities - the big brands are here and just about everywhere ex. when we arrived at station in Beijing on friday we decided to buy a map of the city as the lonely planet one never has all the streets and the one being given as the official tourist guide has all the McDonalds of the city along with all the shopping streets!

4 - Chinese people are really amused with us. They love to take pictures with us and of us and talking to us, especially when we answer back in Mandarin :)

5 - After almost 2 weeks in China we have seen A LOT of children, however I have yet to see a pregnant woman (Jo spotted one on the train but that is it)!!!! Also, most parents still stick to the one child policy even though it is no longer law. And most of these single children seem to be pretty spoiled! :)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ni hao from Beijing!!

Last time you heard from us we were still in Shanghai...We have now made our way up through Nanjing and to Beijing and will leave for Xi'an on Monday night.

Anyways, better start from the beginning (I will try to make this brief and we promise to put a lot of photos so you dont get bored with my monologue!)

We left Shanghai on thursday morning to Nanjing - I wanted to see the city as there is quite a lot of history to it but unfortunately when we got there we were told that the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre was closed for 13 months for renovation :( So we visited the city as best we could - we saw the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum and the Fuzi Temple where we tried the Teahouse where they serve you tea as it should be through a whole complicated process and after made our way upwards towards the station through a huge shopping district (there are many of those in every city here) - I wanted to see more but transportation was hard to come by as metro stations are very far apart and it was impossible to get a taxi during rushhour! Let's just say our feet will be happy to go home hehe

We left Nanjing towards Beijing with a night train (12 hours) - we figure we're going to spend most of our money on transportation while here, as comfort doesnt come cheap! - we took the soft-sleeper trains which means you have 4 beds to a compartment (for Xi'an there were no more 4 bed compartments available so we will be forced to take the 2 bed for double the price, ouch!) Anyways, quite comfortable transportation and luxurious as well - you sleep the entire way and are woken up with breakfast (that is if you dont have a China man snoring loudly next to you - that didnt really help!)

After getting accomodation and catching up on some needed sleep we made our way to Tiannanmen Square (biggest square in the world for those who dont know). However we were sideswept on the way there by a rickshaw man that wanted to take us around one of the many "ghettto" neighbourhoods of China - dont worry mum, they almost dont pedal anymore as they have electric bikes now - he then took us to a huge Beijing Roast duck restaurant (hey, when in Rome...) We spent quite a lot of money in this restaurant but the duck was great! We were the only tourists there (it was a 6 floor restaurant, each floor held 200 people so you do the math - like I said earlier - HUGE!)

Tiananmen - also HUGE and extremely crowded with Chinese tourists. By the time Jo took all the photos he wanted from the square it was already too late to do the Forbidden City so we just went into one of their many gardens to enjoy their tranquility :) Afterwards, we figured it was best to buy the tickets for Xi'an so we made our way to their -again- HUGE Beijing West Train Station where after much waiting in between impatient Chinese (who by the way are not very good at staying in line or not cutting) we were able to get our very expensive tickets to Xi'an.

Yesterday, we visited the Forbidden City (3 hours inside and we could have done more if we had gone to see all the exhibitions but we only saw the main halls and the clock exhibition). Then we took another rickshaw ride around yet another neighbourhood (this one was quite interesting because it was already around during the Ming and Qing dynasty and it was where the people who worked inside the Forbidden City during the day came to sleep at night) - we also "supposedly" passed Deng Xiaoping's house (before he was president). At night we visited the markets (our hotel is on the same street as one of them so we didnt have much to walk :) The trouble with China is that you want to buy everything because it is so cheap and completely different from back home but when you travel with backpacks you really have to be aware of your limitations! That night we also went to visit Tiananmen Square because Jo wanted to use his tripod for some night photos - good for me cause I got to interact with the people and practice my mandarin! I also got to fly a chinese kite (we ended up buying one of course!)

Today, we visited the Temple of Heaven Park - biggest architectural site to pray to Heaven. You have to hand it to the Chinese - they know how to enjoy their weekends - we arrived to a singing group and then made our way to a little hidden area where the older generation were practicing their instruments and singing opera but very relaxed and enjoying each others companies. A bit further along we ran into a game area where people where playing various games with each other - one was where you threw a fabric ring across to some one and the other person has to catch with their head - Jo was immediately invited to play :) We did also visit the temple of course, which was very nice (photos can speak for themselves) although I do remember that it was much nicer in 1999 when the sky was actually blue! When we were almost at the end Jo was yet again invited to play a type of tennis - but the rackets have a soft material and you are not actually supposed to hit the ball but let it fall gently on the racket and throw it to your partner - we ended up buying a set as well!

Afterwards we visited the Lama Temple - the biggest Buddhist temple in China outside of Tibet. Also very nice with a lot of halls and Buddha statues - it had one that was 80m tall and carved out of a single white sandalwood tree (it made it into the Guinness Book of Records) but again I thinkg the photos speak for themselves - I already bore you enough with the other details!

Tomorrow we are going to Badaling to visit the Great Wall of China - since we were forced to stay one more day we decided to keep this for last as it is worse to visit during the weekend! Then, hopefully if we have time (and since we are waking up at 5 to go to the Wall) we should still have time to visit the Summer Palace - our train isnt until 21:30 for Xi'an so we will see :)

Until then, Zaijian!!

Jo and Fil

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hi from China!!!

Hey guys,

Its a new trip for us and this time we have picked China...well, actually we wanted Mongolia, and then New Zealand but its a long story and here we are!!

We have arrived in Shanghai yesterday morning after a 2 hour train from Brussels to Paris followed by an 11 hour flight (sleepless for Jo) where we were warmly welcomed by a choffeur nonetheless sent by my mother´s counterpart in Shanghai.

We decided not to sleep straightway otherwise it would have been murder for the jetlag. Anywas, after a nice shower (which by the way is a bit worthless here considering that it is close to 40ยบ C with 80% humidity, meaning as soon as we leave the air conditioned apartment we are bathed in sweat!!) we went for lunch and then were dropped off in the Old City to visit the Yunnan Gardens (which I had already visited when I came to Shanghai before in 1999 when my dad moved to Macau but I came with my mum so it was a bit different)...

After visiting the Yunnan Gardens (and getting bitten coutnless times by invisible mosquitoes) we walked up the Bund (which follows the River Huanpu) and looks on to Pudong where you can see Jiamao Tower (the biggest skyscrapper in the whole of China but soon to be outtaken by another one being built right next to it)... It was monday afternoon and full of Chinese people enjoying the river breeze with their families...

After Jo spotted a photographer with a Benro trippod I tried in my miserable mandarin (quite proud actually that I can make myself understood) to ask where we could find the nearest store and after 10 min of "conversation" we managed to get an answer. We then spent the evening walking up Nanjing Road - a bit like Time´s Square in New York - and we did find that store where Jo did buy his "baby". We also ran into a groip of students who were all to happy to practice their english with us...

Anyways, enough of the boring stuff. We are now trying to figure out our next move up to Beijing and out west towards Xining to take the road less travelled...So watch this space for some more interesting and rural encounters with the provincial villages of inner China!!

lots of love,

Fil and Jo

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dream Wedding in India!!

No silly, not ours!! :)

In January, Jo and I flew back to Mumbai (yes, we had been there already during that terrible monsoon season in the summer of 2005) and now we went back to see one of my great friends get married to the love of her life :)

We went for a week and as you probably know there is no monsoon in January and it's actually summer time there so it was a great break from the cold for us!

The wedding was to be a traditional Indian wedding - so a 3 day ceremony was awaiting us - and no, it was not like Monsoon Wedding because my friends are not Punjabi...

So, on with the story... what do you get when the son of the highest non-elected official of the state of Maharashtra gets married to the daughter of a guy who works for the richest man in India as well as having I don't know how many companies under his wings -- the most spectacularly opulent wedding you will ever see in your life!

Out of Dee's (the bride) 5 great friends only Dora and I were able to come, with our respective significant others...
And out of the 3,000 - yes, that many - people at the last ceremony of the last day our dear friends Dee and Sanjoy had only invited 30...So we got the feeling that a rich wedding in India is a lot like networking - you have to invite just about everyone that is, or can be, important for the parents' careers...

So, I figure the best way to do this is by splitting the days of the ceremony...I'll try not to be too boring or detailed and let the pictures speak for themselves :)

We arrived on Wednesday and had a lovely reunion with Dee's family before we were whisked away by the happy couple for dinner and partying the night away...As we had not been to a club the last time we were there we were a bit curious...although I have to admit that it was quite hard for Jo and I to amuse ourselves freely thinking that just outside on the sidewalk there were about a dozen families with little babies living in very precarious conditions...Well, we made the best of it and actually ended up meeting a very nice Swedish couple with whom we ended up spending the entire next day visiting Mumbai and Colabba fish and vegetable market before Dora and Claudio arrived.

So, on to the ceremony...

Day 1:

Sanjoy (the groom) is part Jewish so we had a small Jewish prayer ceremony in the morning with just the family and well us, followed by a nice lunch...
Then in the afternoon, the boys were free to wander and the girls had to "babysit" the bride as she dons on her bridal henna...let's just say that she had to stay still while 3 other women designed intricate patterns on her arms and feet for about 5 hours!!!!

Dora and I also got henna "tattoed"... oh and we were also given (and this was designed by Dee) beautiful skirts and tops to match a bit of the Indian traditional dress code...Then afterwards when the henna was all dried out there was a nice party with all the family from both sides where we had to dance and the relatives had to give offerings of money to the bride and groom...the groom also had to put on henna but he only needed to have it on one finger of his hand and the saying goes that the darker the henna the more he loves his bride...ooohhh :) That was the only time we had dancing music and alcohol...

Day 2:

This day was reserved for the bride's family - there is a Puja, which is a prayer ritual where you have eunuch priests come and bless the bride and her family and everyone else who would like to get blessed...I was kinda of pushed into the queue by Dee's lovely auntie so I ended up with a red dot and rice on my forehead!

Then after the Puja, the best was yet to come...We had lunch on banana leafs where for once we could actually play with our food!! We had to eat with our fingers you for you to imagine we had the banana leaf then around the edge we were given the servings of all different coloured food and then the rice in the middle so with your fingers you are supposed to mix a bit of the rice with a bit of the many servings - oh yeah, and this time around both my and Jo's stomach was finally used to the spices and we actually really enjoyed it, I even miss it I must say!!
We finally were able to get the bride and groom to ourselves after lunch when we were able to give them the presents from all 5 of us (Dora, Ticha, Anya, Ugonna and me) -- they had a good time opening all the pressies and I know that some of them have already been used ;)

We got the afternoon off so we showed Claudio and Dora around Mumbai (after we took a very deserved nap, of course!) and then we ended up having Chinese food for dinner at Colabba market.

Day 3: D-Day

The actual marriage took place on Sunday morning...the families rented a cricket field---yes, so you can imagine the size of the thing! - and we were all decked out (Dora and I in sariis and Claudio and Jo in traditional Indian's men's shirts - there is a proper name to these things but I am afraid I forgot but you can see from the pictures)... The ceremony was very nice although the place was crawling with photographers and cameramen that made the viewing quite was also very long because it was filled with tons of religious symbolism, such as dropping a veil to represent the first time the bride and groom see each other, the passing around the couple a cord representing the binding of the two together, the inhalation of smoke (don't ask me what that was, to me it was just dangerous) and the walking around the fire 7 times as a married couple...there was a lot more but I really cant explain all of it...there were vows though, they were in Sanskrit, Hindi and then English...

Afterwards we had a lovely lunch, in turns seeing as there were so many of us, on banana leafs again so I definitely enjoyed it (I could just see my mum writhing in pain (if she had been there) watching me eat so messily with my fingers hehehe)

Afterwards we made it back to the house for our customary nap...Jo and I were able to sneak out for a while to go to the beach (not, not a swimming and wearing bikini beach) but we remembered that since it was a holiday weekend it would probably be packed and great for photo opps...we had corn on the cob and India peanuts and enjoyed our Sunday afternoon before we had to go back for the last leg of the ceremony...the reception...

For the reception the cricket field was opened even wider into an L shape and when we arrived the newlyweds had already been there for an hour and were standing on a podium receiving all their guests -- all 3,000 of them -- so you can imagine the queue!!!

The dining hall was the size of a football field with different Indian food going from one side to the other...and if that wasn't enough we had "western food" in the middle (meaning Italian, Swiss and Hungarian!! Don't ask me to explain the last two!) - it was a buffet so we served ourselves and then made our way, if possible, to a vacant table...The food was of course delicious...we tried to have a bit of everything but that proved to be quite impossible although we did make the trip to the buffet about 3 or 4 times (and Jo of course about 6 times...)
There was a band but the music was soft and definitely not for dancing and there was no definitely not your typical western wedding where most of the times the purpose is to dance the night away completely sloshed hehehe
We finally joined the queue to greet the newlyweds about 4 hours after we had been there and when there was hardly anymore queue - smart eh! We hardly got to spend time with the newlyweds as they rushed through dinner at like midnight and then were whisked away to enjoy their "first night" together... So Dora and Claudio and Jo and I headed back to Dee's house where we were staying and decided to make a little "party" of our own on the balcony :)

Last day:

Jo decided to be a cowboy and left quite early to go explore the biggest slum in all of Asia (which happens to be in Mumbai) with an Indian "guide" that knew his way around...yes, I was worried but I had to let him do it...he did not let me go along - macho bullshit and all that :)

We said our goodbyes to Dora and Claudio who were continuing their journey to Goa to enjoy the lovely beaches and I headed to Colabba market to buy the last presents for home...

When Jo got back we still managed to visit one of the slum's we had visited the last time in Mumbai and find some of the people we had met to give them back the photos we had taken of them. There was specially an old couple that had taken us in the last time we were there for coffee and we were able to find them again and give them the photo we had taken of them. Conversation was hard as they did not have very good English and our Hindi is not exactly up to par but they were very touched with our "return" and insisted that if we ever come back again we must have lunch with them and the entire family :)

Then, as our flight was quite late in the night we were able to have dinner with the newlyweds...
Right, as a wedding gift Dee's father surprised them with a 2 night stay in the Taj Mahal Hotel (the most expensive in India) and not only that, they spent these nights in the Tata Suite (Tata is the richest man in India and he owns the Taj Hotel so you can just imagine it) and to make things even more extravagant...the last person to use the suite had been the President of Portugal, my president...

All in all, I must say that Jo and I had the experience of a lifetime at this wedding...Definitely something we will not see again...unless of course we befriend the son of the president or something like that hehe
And yes, it was hard to see the two extremes and poor...and it does hurt the heart to see so many little kids asking for food...although I do have to say that it seemed a bit better than last time with less people living on the streets...and also, after the last ceremony when there was so many food left I asked one of the aunties what would happen to it and they guaranteed me that it would go to the poor, along with all the flowers that were used as decoration so they would be able to sell them on the streets...I'm not saying this solves the problem, but I guess it's a little help...

At this moment, I wouldn't mind going back...India is beautiful and it is quite a huge country to explore, so who knows :)

Lots of love
Jo and Fil

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The BIG Apple!

So we made it to New York just fine, after removing all our liquids and gels and seeing a lot of good expensive make-up being thrown away (no, not mine, I can' afford that stuff!)
We got delayed though and so the ultimate happened, our hammock got lost on the way and we only got it back the next least we got it back, just imagine if we were leaving the states staight away!

Anyways...on with the story...We arrived late to Enca's appartment (my mum's friend that was very nice to put us up for the weekend) and we had absolutely no idea where to go eat seeing as it was so late...well, I have to say I'm not proud, but damn it, I misssed it...we went to McDonald's where we ordered the chicken nuggets with honey mustard sauce (mind you, I have searched and searched and I have ony found this amazing sauce at McDee's in NYC) and they were great!! I swear we never did it again :) We decided to call it an early night seeing as we had sooo much to do in such a short time (it was Jo's first trip to New York!)

Day 2:

The next day we started out in Battery Park to look at the Statue of Liberty and I showed Jo the site of the World Trade Center where they now have a huge history of how it happened and now instead of having tons of flowers and banners for the deceased they have a plaque (like in Washington D.C. for the Vietnam Memorial) with everyone's names on it. All the other stuff was moved to a church right nest to it where a lot of people gathered and prayed and were rescued to after the planes came down on the towers, very beautiful and emotional...

We make our way uptown, passing Chinatown's busy Canal street where I got a cheap Gucci knock-off bag (yeah I know its wrong but the prices say differently!) Jo was looking for a good fake watch but didnt find anything he liked...
We continued on up into Little Italy (I have to be honest and say I had actually never walked through Little Italy!) and it was really nice, well, the day was great and hot and the city is always full of people and things to look at...Through Washington Square Park where the chess players were trying to con some poor guys who just wanted to beat "the masters" and we passed City Hall (where the Al Pacino movie was made) oh, and also where good ol' Giuliani "ruled" his town, well, now he might be going up for the next elections...we'll see how that goes.
I showed him the East village and the West village and on up to Union Square where NYU (New York University) has its headquarters and also a very nice area to go out at night, which we did, but that comes later :)
Then we came to the masterpiece...well, it's not my favorite building, that would be the Chrysler, which we also saw, but I showed him the Flatiron Building which is a magnificent work of architecture so we stuck around for a little bit to take pictures...That was pretty much it for the first night we went out with my friend Stephanie from highschool and her boyfriend (whose work we are not allowed to say...hint hint...its for the government :) We went out for sushi (cmon, after a month in Central America you didnt expect us to go out for fajitas I hope) hehehe and then we went out to check out the bars in the Weast/East village...they ended up taking us to a Belgium Beer Bar, well, we couldnt complain but let's just say the beers back home in Belgium are a bit cheaper seeing as they are not imported! But it was a great day all in all, even if we were exhausted andwe knew that we would have to get up early again! Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, we also did some shopping...I got to go to my favorite store: Old Navy and Jo got a couple of things from Banana Republic and also Old Navy - yep, we spoiled ourselves ;)

Day 3:

Got up and made our way to the Moma (Museum of Modern Art), which was really great, we spent quite a big part of the morning there...I got the catalogue if anyone is interested :)
Then we continued on up (it seems this is all we did - go up!) and made it the Central Park...but not before stopping at the new Abercrombie and Fitch Store on 5th Avenue...of course we went to 5th Ave! And we saw the Plaza, which unfortunately was under renovation so the outside was not very nice but at least Jo got to see it. They ahve now made right in front of the Plaza a huge Apple-MAC store with a huge crystal cube leading down to the store, that is about a block long. Let's just say Jo got a little lost in there with all the toys, he almost conviced me into getting an ipod! So we got out of there before our budget collapsed :)

We went through Central Park, where we passed the Walmon Rink which had been turned into a children's fair for the summer and I also wanted to show him the Bethesda Fountain but some idiot had thrown something in it so there were cops everywhere blocking us from getting near it, so we had to go around and then I showed him where the memorail to John Lennon was put, almost in front of his building where he was shot...

Then we hopped back on the metro (yes, we did quite a few rides down there) and made our way to Broadway, but it the day time so it wasnt all lit up like you should see it but Jo got an idea of it...We met my friend Tatiana (my first friend in the States...we've been friends since 1993, talk about friendship!!) for drinks, unfortunaly too short as we had to meet yet another one of my friends for dinner that night....well, I dont go back often so I need to get as many reunions as I can!

We hurried our way home after saying goodbye to Tat...we were hurriyng everywhere in New York, after a whole month of no stress no worry vacation it was really hard to get back in the game! And we were late, of course, to meet Jean-Marie (my great friend from New York...she's a Queens native and yes she's got the accent :) and had a great Chinese dinner before going back to her place in Queens for dessert... All in all, another great day

Day 4: Our last day

There was still a very important thing to see in this trip and we knew we didnt have much time as we had to get to the airport by four, and its not like the airport in Belgium where it would only take you max 15min to get there form any point in Brussels (okay, from our house, but that's all that is important right!) So we needed to plan our day well...

We first had a priority: Jo's priority of getting a high-intensive super indestructible can be used for defence flashlight and the only store that sold it in NYC was downtonw and only oppened at 10 so let's just say I was seeing our plane leave with us if our day was to continue this way...but we got the flashlight ans his smile was worth it :)

We rushed to the Empire State Building where we had to wait in line for an hour in order to go up and see the great view - unless of course you wanted to pay the exorbitant 40 dollars each and the you could do the Express line (I prefered the Twin Towers but oh well, there is nothing that can be done about that now). We got the usual picture taken with the viwn of Manhattan behind us and then we went was too crowded and you had to wait for people to move in order to take good pictures but we saw it and Jo got to see it and experience it and that's all taht matters...

Then we rushed to Duane Reade (a pharmaceutical everyday store where you can get just about everything) in order to stock up on medicine that I cant buy in Europe ...damn all the legistlations! hehehe and then we rushed to a luggage store we had seen while making our way downtown in the morning on a taxi (we needed another bag to fit all the things we had bought on this trip) and after the purchase made...I have to say it came in handy and I still use it constantly to visit Jo in Madrid and go to Strasbourg every other money well spent :) we rushed to go see the United Nations - Jo's dream job location :)

Then we rushed again where we quickly ate something, made our bags, rushed to ICEP, Enca's job on 5th Ave in order to return her keys and then make it to the airport.... I'm getting tired just writing about all this rushing we did!

But it was great and worth it and we had a great time throughout the entire's something we will enver forget and hopefully we'll get a chance to go back and show it all again to our kids...oneday :)

Thanks for travelling with us, hope you've had an enjoyable journey and we look forward to travelling again with you in the future...Don't forget to buckle up :)

Bye bye for now
Jo and Fil