That night Doyal and Sofiya arranged tickets for a Traditional Kerala Theatre Show. We arrived in time to see how the actors did their own makeup using natural rock and powder paint, and proceeded to sit through an hour and a half of one of the most elaborate, peculiar shows we’ve seen to date. There is no dialogue, all meaning is conveyed through convoluted hand movements and strange (but usually hilarious) facial expressions.
Thailand: 2nd May – 14th May, Bangkok & Khaolak.
After disembarking from one bus at the Cambodian-Thai border, we collected our bags, and slogged our way through two passport/visa checkpoints. Just to paint a picture, they were approximately a kilometre away from each other, and the outside temperature was approximately 6,000 degrees Celsius in the shade. Not to mention, foreigners had to go up 30 stairs to get to the Thailand registration office. Those hand held fans came into their own that day, let us tell you.
After that we waited outside in the scorching sun, with 10 other sorry souls, waiting for the worlds smallest bus to come pick us up.
That’s right guys. The next six hours were to be spent crammed in an at-full-capacity mini-van, with negligible aircon and no radio. We got to know each other real well, real quick.That’s how we met Jamie and Carlos; two little cuties from Brisbane. They’d been travelling together through South East Asia, before settling “somewhere in Europe” using their dual citizenship working visas covering the next five years. “Five year visa?!?”, we hear you say? Yeah, we thought it was pretty damn rude, too.
The boys had already been through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, with their next scheduled step to be Nepal. Due to the horrible situation in Nepal (the first earthquake had just happened), they postponed their trip. Jamie was saying how they still wanted to go, and help with the relief efforts and cleanups, but also didn’t want to be a burden on the Nepalese society, as more mouths to feed and more people to find shelter for. Here are the most clever 21 year olds we’ve met in a long time, ladies gentlemen.
We all tumbled out of the mini van at Khao San road; where Jamie and Carlos proceeded to lead up to “Thailands Best Pad Thai”. Big call guys; but we’ll give it a whirl. We’d like to say, that after trying copious amounts of Pad Thai over the next twelve days (twist our arms, why don’t you?), only once did we find a Pad Thai that even came close to the Khao San Road magnificence.
After sitting on the curb and devouring our pad thai; the boys went and bought scorpions on a stick.
They even let us share their scorpions; who said chivalry is dead? Saved us finding an excuse not to eat a whole one of our own too. Winning at weirdo food life.
We parted ways, they headed for their luxury hotel suite. After taking us to where all the taxis congregate, they even offered us theirs to go first instead of being left to fend for ourselves. Awwww. It’s Okay boys, we’ll be perfectly fine! Or so we thought.
Ashleigh was halfway through putting her bag in the back seat when the stupid driver decided that when the door was open and someone was half in the taxi was the opportune moment to start driving. She nearly had a whole heap of newly broken bones to add to her current collection.
After somehow arriving at our hostel injury free, we sat at the bar of Bodega hostel that night (it was recommended by our friend UK James from way back when in Xi’an), sipping on cocktails and celebrating a seamless transition into Thailand. Thats when we started looking at all the giant receipt ribbons pinned over the bar like badges of honour…. and wait a minute! … That’s James!!
The waitress even remembered UK James, and proceeded to tell us all the stories she had of his stay there (evidently he’s a huge fan of drunken nudity) and then showed us a photo on her facebook page that she took of him half naked, mooning the camera. Stay Klassy UK James!
Not long after that, we received a video message from Jamie taking us on a video-tour of their magnificent, double room apartment suite; complete with them wearing white robes and photos of the pool. We watched, with accompanied “oh my god”s and general outcry as everyone in the bar clearly wondered what the hell we were doing.
The next morning, we caught the skytrain to the giant Chatachuk market. Once again we didn’t buy anything that we had to carry; just a plethora of fruit, including mango and sticky rice from the best dressed vendor lady in history, and then sampled the local coconut ice-cream.
That afternoon, we met the boys for The Avengers 2. It was so hot, we needed air conditioning, didn’t want to go shopping and were seriously craving some Marvel, so it was win/win/win as far as we were concerned.
We spent our last morning in Bangkok at one of the biggest shopping centres you’ve ever seen.
We spent the whole time rationalising what we *could* buy, and what we would therefore throw out in exchange.
After that we made our way to a lovely domestic flight and headed to Phuket (price difference) found our hotel transfer and headed to the lovely beachside town of Khaolak for the next ten days, to spend Katia’s birthday having fun in the sun with a pool-access hotel room all to ourselves.
We spent the next ten days getting to know the local area, wandering down to Bang Niang Market (which is on every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday nights) for excellent local “street” food and general shopping. This is where we bought quintessential Thailand baggy pants in preparation for India, tried Thailand’s Second Best Pad Thai, and made friedns with the people at the Shakes and Cocktails hut, convincing them to make us Banana Shakes (frozen smoothies) with a metric tonne of white rum in them. Best. Idea Ever.
It was during one of these escapades, we met two awesome couples (Steph and Toni and their hilarious husbands) from Coffs Harbour who were having some strange, highly alcoholic version of “long island iced teas” that basically looked like vodka with lemon. They proceeded to show us photos AKA brag about their amazing beachfront villa, with private pool overlooking the ocean. After a lot of fawning and cooing, we broke the news that we weren’t actually coming home for another 9 months and are in fact on an 11 month around the world trip. That’s when Toni’s husband exclaimed that we had well and truly won that round and that they’d brought out all their cards way too early, and had nothing left to play. He seemed pretty impressed about our “lay-in-wait” technique! We then proceeded to list AKA brag about the forty countries we intend on visiting ver the next year.
They were all so lovely, and we all had a good chat about Khaolak, their travels, our travels and then Toni shouted us a round of our new Banana Daiquiris (which was so lovely) and were on their way to dinner at their amazing resort.
We went for beachside dinners, worked on our tans, swam in the sun and read a few too many books. Katia’s birthday was spent in stellar surprise style. After giving hugs and presents and upsidedown-written birthday cards (Ashleigh’s fault on that one; it all looked the same on the inside!!);
Sam and Ash organised a surprise breakfast table set up, which the Fanari Resort staff were more than happy to help with.
The hotel staff also knocked on our door with a suprprise fruit platter later that morning. So sweet.
And we went for a wonderful dinner at Smile Restaurant in Khaolak proper, a French-Thai fusion restaurant owned by a quirky Frenchmen named Franck, who seemed to have an aversion to shoes: a perfect trait for the person hosting Katia’s birthday dinner! Via email, Franck had helped arrange a surprise birthday cake; and he exceeded our already well met expectations by bringing out several novelty money-boxes from god knows where, for Katia to choose one as a birthday present.
We spent the rest of Khaolak in much the same fashion as Ladies of Leisure; deciding one day to name our Giant Backpacks, considering they’re a huge part of our lives right now.
Introducing, from the left: Shaniqua, John Candy and Big Bertha; Formally known as Katia’s bag, Ashleigh’s Bag and Sam’s Bag, respectively. Honestly guys, it is the best, most hilarious idea we’ve ever had.
We sadly said good-bye to our pool access room, and bundled John, Shaniqua, Bertha and ourselves into a mini van; time to fly to India!
Cambodia: 25th May – 2nd June, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
We crossed the Cambodian border by bus; the drive from Ho Cho Minh City to Phnom Penh is approximately nine hours. When we got on, the bus attendants came to everyone asking for passports in preparation for visa approval at the border. We were faced with the travellers number one dilemma: NEVER give your passport to ANYONE. Along with handing our passport over, they also wanted the US$35 to pay for the visa. “Yes, strange man. Please, take my only document of identity and here’s some cash for your trouble!”
We figured that the 37 other people on the bus handed their passports over already; so if we get stranded at least we’re stranded in a group. Two germans didn’t agree with this theory – our visa applications went swimmingly and relatively stress free, whilst they ran around like hairy goats trying to get the process done before the bus was ready to leave.
We got dropped off in Phnom Penh city centre; it was absolutely sweltering. We swore and sweated our way into our giant bags, then began making our way to the hostel using the apple map of the hostel street we loaded using the free wifi on the bus – yes you read that right. We thought “2kms? It’ll be fiiiiine, we don’t need a tuk tuk!”; that was before our 2km walk turning into a sweltering test of endurance. Weighed down by 25kgs of luggage, quite literally dripping with sweat, we made it a point of putting one thonged foot in front of the other until we got to Me Mates Villa hostel; red faced and soggy. It was a delight.
That night we went for dinner at Friends Restaurant, which we’d booked in advance from Ho Chi Minh. Friends Restaurant is a Non-Government Organisation wherein the restaurants are used for training, employment and initiative purposes for “former street youth, marginalised youth and adults”. They have many restaurants (details will be in the “Truthful Tips” section, under Phnom Penh) which basically give street kids training and education, gives people jobs and help provide finance for eduction of underprivileged children. Just fantastic. And the food is absolutely amazing. You are served by a “Teacher” in a blue shirt and a “Student” waiter wearing a yellow shirt. The menu at Friends in Phnom Penh was fusion Asian-Tapas
The next day we went to Connecting Hands, another NGO that helps former sex trafficking victims. The staff were lovely, the cafe was very quaint and the food was really nice. NGO restaurants and cafes is one thing Cambodia does really well. There are lots of them scattered around the country, so if you get a chance, please pop into one of them on your travels.
After breakfast, we hired a Tuk Tuk driver for the day, went to the central market then and Sam and Ashleigh headed for the Phnom Penh Killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (formally known as Prison S-21; before that it was a high school). If you hire a Tuk Tuk driver for the day you negotiate a price that mutually suits, then the drivers take you to sites/locations and wait for you until you finish. We paid $22USD/ $28 for the day to be taken from the city centre, to the market, then 40 minuites outside the city, to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum and back.
“The Killing Fields” are a number of sites scattered around Cambodia which are areas of mass graves of people murdered by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime. I’m not going to go into the Phnom Penh Killing Fields in any detail here. It’s absolutely something a person needs to experience for themselves; the gravity and sorrow of the place, oddly juxtaposed by the innocent peace which nature supplies to the area. We hired audioguides for US$6; Full of background information and survivors stories, they were extremely factual and touching and we cannot recommend them highly enough.
The S21, or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is located a back in the city of Phnom Penh and is certainly not for the feint hearted. An absolutely unmissable museum, getting the point of unimaginable horror across in a way of such simple, brutally unvarnished honesty. It’s like nothing you’ll ever see again.
Katia didn’t go to the Killing Fields this time, because she had already been on a previous Cambodian trip. I’s a place you only need to see once in your life; you’re certainly not likely to forget it.
That night we decided to find some much needed levity, and hit up the main bar street for dinner. We wandered into a restaurant called “The Laughing Fat man; formally known as Oh My Buddha”, had some marvellous Fish Amok and Khmer Curry, accompanied by a mojito bucket each.
After some long island iced teas, and various other “Happy Hour” cocktails, (it seems to always be Happy Hour in Cambodian bars) we pottered on back to Me Mates Villa for a solid sleep.
Our next day in Phnom Penh was spent meeting our new mate Saurom the Tuk Tuk driver, who the ferried us to the gargantuan Russian Market. We wandered around for a while then purchased our hands-down best investment yet:
The weather was seriously sweltering. We meandered from stall to stall, fanning ourselves and came to realisation that a Market Experience is just so different when you aren’t actually planning on buying anything. Because we a) are on a budget and b) don’t physically want to carry anything that is not strictly necessary, it really puts a different perspective on the way you approach markets and shopping centres. Our main purchases are honestly just different foods from the specific region; usually much more rewarding that a tacky souvenir elephant that we’d just have to lug around in our packs, and would probably accidentally break before we can send it home.
After the market, Saurom took us to the water front where we said goodbye, then proceeded to get lunch and fro-yo, biding our time until the night bus to Siem Reap.
We arrived at the bus stop, got told to get on, and watched as one man took our bags and slid them under the bus, and another man slid the out the other side and leaned them on the road. This is when Sam gets all up in his grill “why is he taking our bags out? What is he doing with our bags? Are they going to go back under the bus?” “Him: “It’s fine, it’s fine, get on, get on.” Sam: “Well, it’s not fine. Thats everything I own in there! All of my worldly possessions”. And then we see Old Mate on the other side of the bus slide them all into a spearer compartment, and the guy on our side just laughs as we climb the stairs.
We booked the night bus expecting it to be the same format as the night buses we took throughout Vietnam; Katia and Ash booked two bottom seats whilst Sam booked the seat above Katia.
Or so we thought.
Turns out the Cambodian night buses have double bed and single bed options; as opposed to single, reclinable seats.
Katia and Ash shared a nice cosy double; whilst Sam was above sharing with a random old guy wearing flow orange pants. It was an all round interesting night. Note to selves: Always extensively google you transport options! If you’re travelling in odd numbers, you can book single beds as well.
We got to Siem Reap at about 5 am; arrived at our hostel, One Stop, and proceeded to go to sleep on their breakfast benches. All of us woke up to the sound of plates and cutlery, surrounded by people eating omlettes and muesli.
We spent Siem Reap swanning around night markets, and visiting Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage site, spanning 400 square kilometres, containing a multitude of temples and constructions. We decided to do the sunrise ticket, where you arrive at the Angkor Wat grounds, and watch the sun rise over the temples five towers, as it is mirrored on the lake in front. Unfortunately we didn’t quite get the sunrise experience we wanted, due to cloud cover, but it was still absolutely beautiful.
Please note; if you are wanting to do a sunrise/sunset entrance, this is the busiest time of day for ticket lines. Sunrise is approximately 6am. Everyone arrives at the ticket booths at about 5.30. If you want to miss the lines, try to get there a little earlier. As said, we visited Angkor Wat (possibly the most famous temple in the park), Bayon Temple, or the Temple of Four Faces, Ta Promh, a temple now overrun with the roots of giant trees (also where Tomb Raider was filmed) and Prasat Kravan, the smallest structure we visited comprising of pink stone archways.
We chose a one day pass to Angkor, but with the amount of temples, shrines and structures within the grounds, it is quite easy to imagine how one could use a 3 day or even 7 day pass in the grounds. You can hire bikes and make your way around at your own pace, or hire a tuk tuk driver for the day, and arrange which temples you would like to see (we paid US$18/ $24 for the three of us for a return trip for sunrise and four temples). Make sure you bring plenty of water with you; it can get absolutely sweltering. There are also several vendors at each temple site, if you need to buy food or water. We stopped in at Sister Srey Cafe for lunch after Angkor Wat and enjoyed delicious burgers, smoothies and even a chocolate milkshake. Just the type of lunch we needed after our sweltering morning of temples. That afternoon was taken up by going through our phones and cameras and wondering why on earth we took 101 photos of the same temple. Literally its the same angle and lighting, why do i need so many photos?
That night, we saw some renditions of traditional Apsara Cambodian music dance at Temple restaurant; located on Pub Street…
…went to the night market again to buy singlets because we were too damn hot, and just pottered around Siem Reap. The next day was spent more or less the same way before we boarded yet another bus to take us to Bangkok, Thailand.
But more about that later!
Vietnam 19th – 29th April: Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City
We took the overnight bus directly after Halong Bay, accompanied by German Chris and Daniel all the way through to morning and disembarked at Hue. The fiery pits of hell would have been positively balmy, compared to the temperature of Hue that day. We got off the bus all ready for our hotel transfer, only to be lead to three motorbikes, wherein they tried to strap our ginormous bags to the back without the bike overbalancing. Ummmmmm. No thanks. “No thankyou! Can we walk instead?” “It’s okay! It’s free!” “But we don’t want a motorbike, can we walk instead?” “But it’s free!” “We know. But can we please walk???” So, in our long sleeved air conditioned bus clothes, we hoisted our giant packs, and walked in 41 degrees to the hotel. Thank god it was only about 800m. We arrived at Home Hotel, and were greeted by all the staff “Welcome Home!”, given ice water and fruit platters and shown to our air conditioned room, before venturing out for a Bun breakfast.
Like the clever people we are, we decided we needed to take full advantage of our only day in Hue and go see the Citadel. in the middle of the day, in 41 degree heat. Really clever, guys.
We crossed the giant bridge across the river, paid an exorbitant amount for entry (approximately AU$10pp; compared to everywhere we’ve been so far, this was an expensive entrance fee), and dragged our sorry, sweaty, dehydrated selves around the old royal palace grounds in the blistering heat; crowding in areas of shade for as long as we could without actually staying there forever.
After the Citadel, we sat in front of fans (thank god) and had the most glorious lunch of cold satay bun with homemade lemon iced tea.
The next morning we caught a 4hr bus to Hoi An. Considering our sorry state in the Hue heat, we decided we deserved a little “flashpacking” and booked a room at Greenfields hotel – a hotel with a pool, recommended to us by Irish Alice, Dermott and Anthony from Halong Bay.
After lounging (read: sweating) by the pool all afternoon, we went for free-cocktail hour and stumbled across German Chris and Daniel, from our Halong Bay Party Cruise; who then invited us our to dinner with five other Germans and their Brazilian friend. The Oktoberfest Training resumed with a vengeance!
It was gruelling, let us tell you. Even German Chris bowed out early, escorting us back to the hotel via a late night Banh Mi.
The next day was spent a) recovering b) vowing we’re never drinking beer again and c) escaping the 38 degree heat by the pool. After sufficient recuperating, we ventured out for a lovely rooftop dinner overlooking the river…
…before shopping at the night market, and admiring all the lanterns which seem quintessential to Hoi An’s charm.
After the market, we got icecreams, then did a little clothes shopping. Leaving the shop, we stepped onto the street and practically run into Dom and Jeremy from Sapa, who invited us to come have a few beers with them. Sure!
There goes our 9am no-beer vow.
Jeremy is a wealth of information on so many diverse subjects he’s amazing to have a conversation with; and Dom is such a lovely, lively lady, who is just so charming it’s impossible not to like her straight away. We all had a lovely chat about travelling, their lives, where they live and what they do. We learnt that Jeremy is a golf course architect who’s designed golf courses all over the world. The question turned to Dom and without a blink in her stellar french accent she says “I am a Sex Therapist”. No freakin’ way; The people you meet!
Call of the night came not too long after that. Jeremy “Funnily enough, I don’t actually play golf.” Dom: “…but I play at Sex”. It was so unexpected, and hilarious, we actually laughed until there were tears in our eyes. Well done, Dom.
The next day, Katia and Sam hired pushbikes to ride around Hoi An; Ashleigh didn’t need any more injuries so let them have at it. They went to the beach, did some tanning, then ventured to fruit market, and were lovely enough to bring back cut up pineapple in their bicycle baskets for Ashleigh who was blogging her fingers to the bone, and slogging away downloading the latest Game of Thrones episodes.
We went to Miss Ly’s for dinner that night, recommended by Paul and Cathy (Katia’s parents) from their previous trip to Vietnam. It was expensive compared to other Vietnamese restaurants and definitely more expensive than street food, but well worth it if your budget allows. The food was amazing and the set up was lovely.
Truthful Tip: Keep your eyes peeled in Hoi An (or anywhere in Vietnam, for that matter), because you never know who you may bump into. Other than Dom and Jeremy, we ran into so many people from our Halong bay Cruise chilling on the beach and walking the streets, boys form our Hanoi Hostel room who were motorbiking it down south, and even German Stef from Hanoi! Most people follow the same path North-South or South-North so if you do have the pleasure of travelling here one day, don’t be surprised if you’ve got unintentional Vietnam travel buddies!
Our last day was spent picking up tailored shirts, going to Cocobox Cafe for a taste of Fitzroy
..and sitting in a woman’s shop, sifting through boxes and boxes and postcards, trying to find the perfect ones to send to people. Keep your eyes on your letter boxes guys, one might be coming your way!
We went to Mermaid Cafe, the first cafe in Hoi An, for a late lunch in preparation for our 26 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) before heading to the bus stop where we met the hilarious Irish Fiona and her hot French friend (his sexy French name escapes us at the moment). She was such a breath of fresh air, and it was so great to share Chinese horror stories with someone who understood everything we had gone through. We received an invite to catch up in Galway, which we totally intend on cashing in! Watch out, Fiona!
We also discovered we were sharing our bus with Dutch Marco all the way to HCMC (the lucky thing). We arrived in HCMC quite late, went for a bowl of the best Pho in Vietnam, opted to rain-check our two free beers, and crawled into bed in our cosy 12 bed dorm.
The next day was ANZAC DAY, and we didn’t seem to have much luck with monuments. We went to visit the palace, it was closed. We went to see the war museum, it was on lunch break. we then sweated our way to the Jade Pagoda, which is highly recommended on Lonely Planet. In all honesty, we didn’t rate it compared to some of the magnificent structures we’ve seen, but if you have time to kill it’s worth a look; if only for all the turtles in the front pond.
Made our way back to the War Remnants Museum. We felt more than a little unintentional irony, visiting a war museum on ANZAC day.
That being said, the museum was amazing – It gave an extensive, unbiased representation of the War in Vietnam and the photo gallery was absolutely amazing and heart-wrenching, showing photos collected from war photographers of all nationalities on every conceivable side of the war. An absolute Must-Do for anyone who finds themselves in HCMC.
On our way back to the hostel, we went to the giant Ben Thanh Market. We’re discovering how different the market experience is when you’re a) on a tight budget and b) don’t physically want to carry anything else in your backpack.
We went for free beers on the rooftop bar, gave our excess beer tokens to the hot english guy bunking above Sam (he honestly looked as happy as if he’d won the lottery) then we left the bar in search of Vietnamese BBQ and foot massages…
… then returned to our dorm and had a good chat with Melbourne Tom about Thai Islands and activities. Turns out Tom was meant to be back at uni by now, but instead was spending the next few weeks travelling around South East Asia. Much more rewarding, really. Then a girl let herself into our dorm, “Tom! There you are!” Scrambled her way up into his bunk, exclaimed how she’s already snorted one valium, and then the two (mainly her) proceeded to have extremely loud D&M’s about failed relationships and how guys are assholes, only to both being lamenting on the lack of tramadol available in Vietnam and started snorting crushed up valium tablets.
Ashleigh: “I’m really not in the mood to resuscitate anyone tonight…”
The next day was spent in the Mekong Delta, floating around in little canoes with triangle hats, channeling our Vietnamese side.
We spent 75% of the day on some mode of transport: Mini bus, big boat, medium boat, little boat, or canoe. We sampled local fruits, listened to local music, were shown the process of making coconut candy, were told how the river sand is dredged up for selling and exportation, and basically walked around absolutely dripping all day.
We met an amazing lady from Holland who was a laser eye technician nurse; we seem to have developed a deplorable habit of striking up conversations with everyone we meet, and never introducing ourselves or asking names. It always ends in turning to each other once we’ve parted ways saying “did you get their name?” “No. I thought you got it. Did you?” “No…” So that was regrettable because she would have been great to catch up with in Amsterdam, and hopefully we learn from this one and start getting peoples details!
That night, we went on a “Goodbye Vietnam Food Feast” wherein we ate rice paper rolls, the Best Pho in Saigon (again), and ventured to Fanny Icecream for dessert.
The next morning, ready and waiting in the lobby for our bus to Phnom Penh, we again bumped into German Chris and Daniel, who totally seem to be stalking us (who could blame them really?)
We were very sad to say goodbye to Vietnam, as we headed for the Cambodian border.
Stay tuned for our next installment: Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Safe travels, and see you soon!
Vietnam 13th – 16th April. Sapa.
We spent three days in Sapa, and the surrounding villages. Coming to the close of our Vietnam portion of our trip, we had no qualms in saying it was one of our favourite and most rewarding experiences.
We organised our trek through Sapa Sisters Trekking Adventures, and we honestly have no trouble in reenforcing their slogan “The best trekking guides in Sapa, Vietnam”. All the guides are Hmong women who actually live in the villages Mung Hoa Valley, so they know every trail and which way possible. Half of the money you pay for your trek goes directly to the guides, the rest goes to expenses. The guides, therefore, receive a fair wage and money goes directly into their community.
After a night on the worlds loudest, jerkiest, most unpredictable train rides ever, we met our trekking guide Ker, and started our Sapa trek on literally zero hours sleep. We never thought we’d say it so soon, but the horrendous tracks, noise, tree branches and general catapulting of the train carriage made us realise how much we miss China. Just in that moment we realised: China, turns out we do love you, we just need some space. Even so, we still couldn’t help but look wonder at the beautiful the landscape as we made our way down into the valley.
Ker was a lively, lovely lady; always ready for a chat, had answers to every single one of our questions, and told us all the village gossip along the way.
Along with lighthearted tidbits about which farmer gambled away all his rice fields in a dice game, and how to dye our hands blue with leaves from the indigo plant; we also learnt many things which, considering our own views on basic human rights and quality of life, plus the fact we were walking through one of the most picturesque places in the world, shocked us more than a little.
One of our questions to Ker was the subject of arranged marriages. She told us that even though arranged marriages aren’t technically done anymore, both the girlfriend and the boyfriend have to be approved by the respective families or marriage is not allowed. This results in many “Romeo and Juliet” style suicides, wherein the couples drink a small amount of each others blood, so they will be able to find each other in the next life, eat poison leaves and die together in the forest.
They had actually just found a couple in the forest a day before our arrival; he was 35 and married with 5 children, she was younger and unmarried. They loved each other and couldn’t be together in this life, so they committed suicide to be together in the next. It is a very sad concept to try and come to terms with whilst walking through such beautiful mountains.
Parents have an incredible amount of control over their daughter lives up until they are married. A mother basically follows her daughter around ALL DAY keeping tabs on anything she is doing. Any signs of physical affection between a boyfriend and girlfriend is prohibited; if there happens to be a witnessed stolen kiss, the girl involved is punished. The mentality behind it is basically a different form of the “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” notion. Bit harsh…
We were also told about a bizarre concept in which a child can be taken from their birth parents in a strange “custody battle” wherein another couple deems the biological parents to be unfit, and that they cannot be the child’s parents anymore because they cannot adequately look after it. This results in the other couple, who claim they can be better more beneficial parents, gaining custody of the child and raising it as theirs. This concept was one of the most foreign; that anyone can claim parental rights over your child simply because they have better means at their disposal to look after it. This is based on an actual event happening at the time, where parents were fighting to retain custody of their extremely sick toddler. Add a shaman into the mix trying to make the child better with potions, and it’s basically a disaster waiting to happen.
After that little Real Housewives of Sapa episode, we trekked through the scorching heat, up hill, down rice terraces and through paddy fields (nearly falling in at one point) to get to our home-stay. That’s where we had a chat to Ker, and we learnt that the guides legally require a licence to do the treks. They also have to buy each trekker tickets to enter the villages. Due to licences being quite difficult to maintain, with difficult tests and expenses, some guides aren’t technically licensed. To get around this slight road block, the guides communicate all day through little old-school mobile phones; each guide tells the other if they see police, or if there are any problems along the way.
If a guide gets caught by the police with no licence, they face a large fine; if they are caught without tickets, they face a large fine. If guides without licenses see the police coming, they give the tourists the village tickets, and hide in the bushes. We asked Ker what the fine would be for a tourist who didn’t have a ticket; she told us there was no fine. They just take your passport and don’t give it back until you give them money. Well that’s comforting.
Ker played a prank on another guide, who hadn’t bought tickets because she took her group up into the mountains instead of through the main path. She told her a little white lie that police were on the main bridge back to the home-stay. This resulted in her taking her group further up into the mountains to come back down from the other side. Ker had the best giggle about it. The two guys (American Koreans Jay and Jason) that rocked up two hours later weren’t laughing too hard, they were too exhausted to even try. It really was hilarious. That night was filled with great chats, local cooking and (two bottles of) homemade rice wine.
We continued our trek the next day, making our way though bamboo forests, squelched through mud, ran away from snakes, meandered through rice fields and visited the waterfalls that fed them. Before any of this happened, we all held our splitting sides whilst laughing hysterically at Sam, who was so excited at the concept of catching a bus back to town the next day, instead of motorbikes, she forgot to watch where she was walking and managed to land BOTH feet square in a big patty of what Ker calls “Buffalo Chocolate”.
The further we wandered through the valley, the more we fell in love with it. It’s not hard to understand why; we wish the photos could do it justice.
When making our way to the home-stay, we got stuck between an irate buffalo and a fence. Rock, meet Hard Place. Our only solution was to Back. Away. Slowly. and just hope he wandered on off. When he finally got far enough away for us to slip passed, we got to the bottom of the hill to find 8 more waiting. It was like walking into Hitchcock’s The Birds; except they were bigger than a Volkswagen, had horns, and being poo’d on by one could in no way be passed off as good luck.
Whilst we hung back, huddled, with looks of horror on our faces, Ker skipped forward, laughed at us, and grabbed some sticks from the underbrush.
Us: “What the hell are they going to do??”
Ker: “You Hit with them”
Us: “But that’ll just make them angry!”
Ker: “*laughs* maybe…”
Thats when Katia grabbed half a tree (literally), complete with leaves and sub-branches, to tote with her for the next 200m. With Ker’s help, some strategic stone throwing, and the placebo comfort effect from our sticks, we made it out alive.
We sat with Ker, drinking tea whilst looking over the beautiful mountains and spoke of Hmong home life.
We learnt that Ker is 29 and her husband is 25, and she took great pleasure in us laughing and joking that she was a regular Cougar (once we explained what a Cougar was).
Ker also told us that the husband has absolute final say in everything; if a woman displeases him or does not listen straight away, she is punished. Sometimes with a slap across the face, sometimes worse. All the Hmong women have extremely long, thin hair which hey wrap around their heads and pin with silver combs.
According to Ker, this long hair can be used as a mechanism to physically drag women around, spinning them in circles or worse. Many women may be miserable in their marriages, which in turn effects their quality of life. It is apparently not uncommon for a woman to take poison in order escape such a sad life. She also told us about how she played a trick on her husband when they were fighting, by pretending to take poison so he’d stop being unreasonable. All of this was said with Ker’s customary big, crinkle eyed smile and cheeky laugh, while we tried to stop expressions of shock, indignation and horror from breaking through.
That night we met an interesting little family unit; Jeremy, Dom, Griff and Honesty. Jeremy (65) and Dom (50’s) were on their honeymoon; she’s French, he’s English and they both live in France; whilst Honesty (Jeremy’s daughter) and her boyfriend Griff (Australian) currently live in Cambodia. It was interesting to listen to the amalgamation of fluent french, and seamless transitions into English as they spoke to one another. Really lovely, interesting people.
On the final day of our trek, Ker took us along a short trail to go swimming in La Vie waterfall. It was a beautiful place. We stripped to minimal clothing, and went for the water.
Braving the arctic water, we floated around for an hour or so, dried off in the sunshine, and left to prepare for the bus.
Ker spent another hour with us in town; she took us to the market, we ate pineapple and pottered around, and happened across a military gun drill being practiced over a field of children playing soccer.
No joke. Look at this:
The contrast between how people live in the valley compared to how they live in Sapa City is quite jarring, it’s hard not to wonder what the Hmong people think of it. This spurred the question “Ker, what happens if a girl gets pregnant and she’s not married to her boyfriend?”. In our western naiveté we expected an answer like “they have to leave the village” or something similar. Instead we were told this story:
“Years ago, there was a girl who got pregnant with her boyfriend and the boyfriend run away and leave her. So the girl’s father and brother take her and throw her in the river with the baby and kill her in the river. So now we know not to get pregnant without being married.”
To say we were shocked was an understatement. It’s that jarring realisation that on one level we want untouched, idyllic ways of life, which still hold so much beauty and rustic simplicity; and yet there is so much lacking on other fronts: Women’s rights, multilevel education, accessible medical treatments, modern innovation which makes a hard life easier, women’s rights…
We had such a wonderful time in Sapa, surrounded by beautiful landscapes and beautiful people, it was so hard to imagine all of the underlying sadness and horror being commonplace in people’s lives. Definitely a bittersweet juxtaposition.
Sapa was an eye-opening, beautiful experience and we highly recommend it to anyone travelling to northern Vietnam. It certainly opens your mind and gives you a different perspective of the world we live in.
You can find more information on the absolutely amazing Sapa Sisters at http://www.sapasisters.com
Vietnam: 11th – 18th April. Hanoi (Sapa) and Halong Bay
Once we arrived at 5am, we wandered around Hoan Kiem Lake like the sleep deprived zombies we were, and couldn’t help but notice that a) there were so many westerners around and b) no one was staring at us! We dodged around all these Vietnamese people doing their extremely strange morning exercises, and felt the weight of China float from our shoulders. We felt that deserved celebratory breakfast pho.
Our Hostel in Hanoi (Central Backpackers- Old Quarter) let us check in early, thank the Good Lord, so we could have a well needed nanna nap.
Two hours totally still counts as a nap, right?
We then discovered that there’s no water at all available for the top four floors of the building. Thanks for putting us on level six, guys. Lucky we had no need for a shower or a flushable toilet after training it from one country to another. They had one room on level three allocated for toilet and shower (in a combined bathroom) for the entirety for the four floors. Definitely interesting. Especially when you’re waiting around for a shower and one of the staff members pops in to have a nap on the double bed in the room.
We basically spent the day wandering around Hanoi, booking train tickets (SO much easier than China; and cheaper!) to Sapa, booking our Halong Bay Party Cruise and our open bus tickets (only US$31!) for travel from Hanoi all the way south to Ho Chi Minh City.
That night at the Hostel Bar, we met two awesome people: Stef from Germany and Niki from Holland, who we spent a bit of time with over the next two days. We bonded over the most excruciatingly slow-poured free beer in the history of hops.
Our second day in Hanoi was spent visiting the Hanoi Women’s Museum, accompanied by Niki; we learnt that women in Vietnam basically do everything around here; work excruciating hours, provide for families, tend to crops and animal, tend to household duties. We struggled to figure out what it is that men actually DO in Vietnam. We were also stunned to learn that the role of Vietnamese women in the war effort has been drastically understated in western history. There were many extremely influential female sounders, spies and informants; one unarmed girl had even single handedly taken down four armed french soldiers. Craziness.
We sat by the lake again and tried our first Vietnamese iced coffees, with sweetened condensed milk (our new favourite drink).
We went back to the hostel in preparation for our overnight train to Sapa to collect our clean laundry, only to find they had lost 24 pairs of our underwear. With the impending deadline of the night train looming over us, safe to say we were getting worried! They ended up bringing to the hostel all of the underwear they had in their shop, and we had to go through them at the front desk in front of about 12 people, and pick out which ones were ours.
“Mine. Mine. Yours.” “Mine. Mine. Ewwwww not ours”
We then went for dinner with Nikki and Stef, headed to the station, and crossed four open train tracks to board our overnight train to Sapa.
We then spent three days in Sapa but we’re not going to write about it just yet. We feel the complexity of our Sapa trip deserves it’s very own post. Stay tuned!
After Sapa, we got back to our hostel, proceeded to have showers and repack our bags. Sam’s shower literally exploded and sent BOILING water spewing out all over the bathroom. She jumped up onto the toilet to avoid all the gushing hell broth, and calls out for help wrapped in a towel. How she didn’t get 3rd degree burns, we’ll never know. Then it was back into the world’s slowest, most crowded minivan for a four hour drive to Halong bay.
It was here we met our effervescent guide Dzung (“Zoom”) who’s token phrase at any given hour of the day was “Shotgun?”.
The Party Cruise was lots of fun; we spent our first night sleeping on the boat, after kayaking in Halong Bay and general party fun times. Ashleigh nearly had a heart attack trying to get in and out of the kayaks on open water, and that night we all struggled to keep track of the 14 sets of rules in the largest game of Kings ever played.
After detouring to a random cliff in the middle of the water to watch people jump into jellyfish infested sea, careening passed razor-sharp, jutting out rocks,
…the second day and night were spent on Freedom Island; our own private island with a double beach front. We took advantage of the pile of lilos and sat sunning and snoozing on our private beach, whilst everyone else played volleyball on the other side of the island. Best. Decision.
We met so many excellent people in such a short time…
…and danced the night away – wishing we had Spanish genes, watching a group of six Spanish girls demonstrate how they are super-human sexy machines with ball bearings in their hips.
We collectively drank SO many Banana Daiquiris the entire island ran out of bananas.
After a 7am breakfast, we piled our sorry selves back onto a tiny boat, to get to our small boat, to get to our big boat that was so choppy we thought we’d all die of hangovers and motion sickness, to get to our bus to meander back to Hanoi.
Shout outs to Irish Alice, Dermott, Anthony, Claire and Louise, French Canadian Marie, UK Kate and Charlotte, German Chris and Daniel, Marco from Holland, The Ever-Energetic Dzung, and last but not least the six gorgeous Spanish girls for providing us with no end of entertainment.
Next Blog: Sapa Sisters.
Next Stop: Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh!
Stay safe, and Happy Travels!
CHINA: 7th March – 10th March Yichang, Shanghai & Nanning.
Just when we’d nearly given up on ever getting transportation the hell out of China, and were about to resign ourselves to die in Yichang, Tim from Wagga once again came to our rescue with the low budget airline Spring Air. What’s that? We should go to Shanghai?
Shanghai was never in our original plan because we felt it was simply too far out of the way from our general route. The fact that this was the easy option pretty much sums up China in a nutshell.
We caught two trains, totalling ten hours. The first was a beeeeeautiful new fast train, a far cry from our Beijing Hard Seats. The second was more or less the same if a little dated.
Unfortunately on the second train we were split into two separate rows; Katia was sitting in the row in front, next to a Chinese couple and their baby, whilst Sam and Ash sat behind her in a two seater row. Ashleigh was so excited getting on the train, because she’d finally scored a window seat. “OMG Sam! I’ve got the window! I never get the window! This is so excellent!”. That was until the couple turned around and ruined everything….
“Can we swap?” Sam: “Oh! Yes, sure, no worries!”
So, whilst the other two slept all cosy in their middle and window seats, Ashleigh spent the next 6 hours being hip and shouldered by train attendants, and watching some Chinese guy demolish three punnets of duck feet.
When we finally reached the other end, the train station was jointed with Shanghaii airport, so we waited in the worlds longest taxi line to get into the Death Cab from Hell. In all seriousness, the taxi driver was doing 120-140kms at any given time, whilst everyone else was doing 70-90kms, in the dark and the rain. We nearly hit a van, a taxi, almost fishtailed into a concrete barrier and narrowly missed t-boning a red sedan through a round-about. And he over charged us triple the price. What an asshole.
We got to the hostel at midnight, checked in, and all disowned our allocated beds in favour of three bottom bunks. #YOLO. Who the hell wants a top bunk anyway? Weirdos, that’s who.
We, once again, experienced the joy of a slab of wood bed, with a folded mattress protector as the makeshift mattress; and went to sleep dreaming of our Yangtze River cloud bed.
Because we only had one day in Shanghai, we decided to make the most of it. Getting up early we caught a bus and went looking for the food street, as per usual. On the way, we got lost as we usually do, and were helped out by three lovely Chinese people who just happened to be going the same way we were. Then conveniently suggested we go with them to a tea house at student prices! Very cheap! Student prices! Come with us, so we can practice our english! Student prices!
There was a sign in the lobby of our Beijing hostel stating that if someone invites you to go to a teahouse with them, it’s an extortion scam. We generally hesitate going anywhere with anyone in the first place, but Katia happened to be the only one of us on the ball this early in the morning and remembered the sign. Seems Beijing was good for something! We celebrated our narrow escape with big bowls of dumpling soup, and wandering into the most delicious smelling bakery this side of greenwich and stocking up on various forms of baked goodness. You know a place is great, when you’re standing next to three giant garbage bins and all you smell is bakery-goodness.
We meandered through the Shanghai Peoples Park which reminded us of Melbourne more than a little, with the greenery backed with skyscrapers
… then to the Shanghai Museum, thinking it was definitely overdue culture hit. As we wandered to the museum and were waiting at the crossing lights, we were approached by one of the strangest people so far (and that definitely says a lot, considering CHINA) who told us he learns dancing in Shanghai, proceeded to tell Ashleigh several times that she looked like a fairy, marvelled over our beautiful skin, asked us to touch his face (no thanks) gave us air kisses. Just as we saw our Little Green Crossing Man as our way of escape, he took Ashleighs hand and Cha Cha’d his way next to her across the crossing.
After liberal application of hand sanitiser, we finally got to the museum. It was actually excellent. four floors of Chinese history; clothing, money, pottery, calligraphy, paintings, sculpture, stamps, seals, and furniture. A wonderfully presented, well set out extremely informative display. We highly recommend it, if you ever find yourself in Shanghai. Plus it has free entry.
We then went on a grand lunch adventure to find Lonely Planet’s recommendation of “The Most Famous Xiaolongbao Restaurant in the area”. After a lot of pointing and guessing, we found the street, building and floor. Only to find a pizza restaurant staring down at us. Turns out it closed down a little while ago. Can’t have been that famous then, you dirty liars!
We did end up finding some for dinner, at the restaurant in which they originated. They were nice, but slightly anticlimactic and not particularly filling. After that, we went back toward The Bund, and stopped off to buy street food at double the amount and a quarter of the price of our xialongbao. And LUCKY we did or we would never have discovered our next Million Dollar Idea!
So we made our way back to the river, in the sub zero temperatures, to eat our street food watch the Pudong skyline, and take approximately 5 million selfies.
The river coupled with skyscrapers and quintessential european architecture once again reminded us of Melbourne and as we walked back to the hostel shivering in our 6 layers, we marvelled at all the brides wearing simple single layer dresses, doing all their wedding photos with the Pudong Skyline, wondering how in the name of hell they weren’t freezing to death on the spot.
With our 6am Spring Air flight to Nanning, we woke up at the glorious hour of 3.30am to get ready, catch a taxi, and get to the airport. We were once again absolutely ripped off by the taxi, who refused to take any of the twelve airport exits we passed while he drove around in so many circles we could have been halfway to Williamstown for all we knew. It got to the point where we were slightly worried we’d miss our flight, and we’d be back where we started from on “How the HELL do you get out of China?” We did eventually end up at the International Airport (which was in itself a worry, because we were taking a domestic flight, but it all worked out); Sam tried to haggle with the driver over being royally ripped off, to no avail. Wish we’d filmed it. It was hilarious.
Standing in airport lines gave us a whole further level to watch on Chinese rudeness and queue jumping, People with four suitcases refused to pay for extra luggage, whilst people practically pole vaulted over them and their open bags just to get to the check in counter. After three seperate check-in points, we’d had more than enough of the pushing, cutting in and the snail-pace at which airport officials worked through the five million people lined up. Sam’s beady eyes spied an official edging toward a closed lane right next to us. “He’s gunna open it. I think he’s gunna open it! Alright Ladies; It’s time to be Chinese!” And that’s exactly what we did.
Us, with our back packs, launched under the barriers to get second form the front of a new line, elbowing Chinese ladies out of the way and everything. And, in true mind-bogglingly Chinese style, no one said a damn thing about it being the wrong thing to do.
Other than constitutional movement exercises directed by the flight attendants, our flight was fairly uneventful. We got a taxi from the airport who DIDN’T rip us off, went for a wander around Nanning, then decided to pick up our pre-ordered Vietnam train tickets from the travel agent.
Map in hand, we found the street then wandered in the rain from one side of the block to the other trying to find the right building, being pointed in opposite directions by fifty different people. Getting to the right place eventually, we discovered it was in fact a hotel/apartment complex. Who’s staff directed us through a heavy duty, guarded, bared door which could only be opened by the gaoler… excuse me, security guard. We hesitantly made our way through to the resounding SLAM of the metal bars, with thoughts of Shawshank Redemption running through our minds.
That line of thought didn’t last very long. Once we saw the hole in the elevator floor, flickering stairwells with rubbish piled and suspect dark splatters along the wall, and half shadowed, endless hallways, we realised we’d actually stumbled into a post apocalyptic SAW movie:
That was your teaser for SAW 7: Chinese Apocalypse #DontTellMum
Unfortunately we were all too shit scared to set a foot any closer to the stairwells or linger in the dark hallways to get photos. You’ll just have to take our word for it.
The “Travel Agency” was set up in one of the rooms, across from barred doorways mind you…
…with one guy, a computer and his pregnant girlfriend sitting on the stock motel couch. We got our tickets, and prepared to leave, but not before the pregnant girlfriend forced the three western zoo exhibits for a sneaky photo or two.
We forfeited dinner for proper showers, pyjamas, and well deserved Korean Face Masks. So naturally, we wake up absolutely ravenous, looking forward to complimentary breakfast!!!!!! We got to the “restaurant” to find five presumably staff members staring at us like deer in the headlights, four take away containers of cold god-knows-what, and a giant vat of pink rice gruel with black things in it. Honest to god, it was pink. Back. Away. Slowly.
STREET FOOD IT IS!
We miraculously found another Egg Roti cart directly outside the hotel, which also sold custard buns, bought iced coffee from 7-11 and went and had breakfast in bed.
When it finally came tome to board our train, we were privately escorted across an empty platform, with no pushing showing or fighting…
… and entered the most beautiful soft sleeper carriage you’ve ever seen.
They were the most gloriously comfortable beds we’d come across, other than the cruise, for three weeks; and we slept for a grand total of three hours. The notion of their amazingly softness taunted us as we waited for, processed through and waited in immigration offices for hour upon hour.
Our one consolation was:
Next stop: Hanoi!
Happy Travels, and stay safe!
CHINA: 30th March – 7th April.
CHENGDU, YANGTZE RIVER AND IMPROMPTU PLANS
We got on our train from Xi’an to Chengdu at a much more reasonable hour this time, before they’d even turned the lights off! and decided to crack out the UNO cards to whittle some time away. We’d completely forgotten the Chinese Peoples absolute fascination with card games. We’d started playing and laughing along, only to look up to find the WHOLE CARRIAGE had crowded around us to see what we were doing. So we spent the next hour teaching chinese men how to play uno, employing our excellent charades and Chinglish skillz we’ve picked up along the way to do so.
After slogging (or temazepan-ing) our way through the 16hr train ride, we woke up somewhere just outside of Chengdu to a random chinese guy taking a photo of Sam while she was sleeping. When we woke her up to apprise her of her celebrity status the first thing Sam says is “heyyy. Did either of you get up at all last night?” What? Hell no. No one in their right mind would scramble down from those tiny bunks unless it was 900% necessary. “Are you sure? Katia?”
Turns out someone came passed and tickled Sams feet at some time during the night. We suspect it was the same guy who sat with us in the morning whilst we struggled through a multi-lingual mongrel of a conversation in which he invited us to his house the next town over, showed us photos of his motorbike, internationally sticked beer and handgun, re-enacted the chino-japanese war then proceeded to mime shooting all three of us in the head. SURE MATE, WE’LL COME YOUR YOUR HOUSE!!
We spent Chengdu meeting up again with Tim from Wagga (yay!) who decided he just missed us so much he needed to hang out with us for the next week. Lucky guy.
We also spent out time seeing Giant Buddhas with a million stairs in 1000% humidity:
…swanning around making friends with Giant Pandas:
And half broiling ourselves to death on Sichuan Hot Pot:
The four of us also wandered around the Chengdu People’s Park, and spent a lovely, sunny few hours at Heming Teahouse watching the lake, sipping a giant thermos of jasmine tea and staring incredulously as people sit and allow quacks to clean their ears with communal mini pipe cleaners and metal instruments.
We then decided we all needed a little bit of luxury in our backpacking lives so, once we got to Chongqing, the four of us booked our vagabond selves into a Luxury, 5 Star, 3 Day Cruise along the Yangtze River. After nearly killing ourselves by having to scale a 1m concrete balustrade in the middle of a four lane road, laden with all of our luggage, to the waiting pickup van; we hauled our filthy packs and ragged selves onto the most beautiful boat you’ve seen since Celine Dion first began wailing off the port-bow.
Our personal waiter named Jack (Sparrow), our River Guide Alice (in Wonderland) and our housekeeper Carrie (Bradshaw) were so lovely as they explained everything that was to go on, ignored how underdressed we were, convinced us to get a drinks package (twist our arms, why don’t you?) and proceeded to serve us glass after glass from the biggest bottle of champagne (read: alcoholic sugar syrup) you’ve ever seen in your life.
After basking in delight over our ACTUAL mattresses and our pillows so soft we didn’t know how to sleep on them anymore, we went to bed like the luckiest people on earth; only to be lovingly woken by beautiful strains of classical music crescendoing through the ships speakers.
Over the course of the cruise we all learnt how to play Mahjong, basked in the sun on rooftop lounges, froze to death in the soaking rain while posing for Three Gorges photos, and ate far too much at buffet breakfast lunch and dinner whilst fighting through throngs of Chinese people who don’t understand the concept of a queue.
Jack Sparrow was surprised to not that the table of westerners he was given to look after preferred chopsticks to knives and forks because they’re now so uncomfortable to use. We’ve been in Asia far too long now, guys. There’s no turning back now.
There was also a spectacular day trip on little wooden boats down the beautiful Wu Gorge, where we saw the famous “hanging Coffin”, saw various natural phenomena and were serenaded with a love song of the Tujia people of the badinage region. The whole day was really quite lovely.
We were sad to end our cruise, not at the very least because we were being dragged away from our amazing beds. We spent a good thirty seconds contemplating whether we could get away with strapping the pillows to our backpacks.
We also had to say goodbye to our awesome table of new friends; Jeremy and his dad who speak fluent Chinese but hang around with westerners because Chinese people are crazy, and Ula from Amsterdam who was a wealth of interesting information, and most importantly: Jack who made sure our wine glasses were never empty and the beer just kept on coming. What a gem.
We arrived in Yichang on day three of the cruise, went to the Three Gorges Dam in the freezing rain, and set up camp at the hostel. It was here that we again said bye-for-now to Tim from Wagga, who we were again very sad to see go.
We had quite a bit of trouble trying to book a train ticket from Yichang to Nanning; our only options were to either train back to Chongqing and make our way back down, or train to the east and head to Nanning from there. Both options required being on a train for 23+ hours. What’s that you say? We should fly to Shanghai instead? What an excellent idea!
Stay tuned for our Shanghai Shenanigans!
Happy Travels, everyone!
China: Xi’an 26th – 29th March
Us three, along with Helena and Gen and our uncomfortably full bladders, scrambled our way off the train, into the waiting van of the person with the big bold “KATIA” sign. Thank the Good Lord for free hostel pickups!! The Shuyuan Party Hostel in Xi’an is absolutely excellent. Great location, great bar, and great staff. A+ would stay again.
After hunting out a western toilet (hallelujah) and taking the closest imitation possible to a hazmat shower, we unleashed ourselves on Xi’an. It was on this day we discovered the Melbourne Foodie Mecca that is The Muslim Quarter.
The sights, sounds and smells of The Quarter were an absolute experience, and with a wonderful amalgamation of Chinese ingredients, middle eastern spices and sometimes a slight western twist, all the food was absolutely amazing.
We also discovered a new Million Dollar Idea to franchise back home: Pot Plant Icecreams!
We ventured to the Wild Goose Pagoda for a fountain and light show at 8.30pm. Ashleigh got saturated when some guy stood in the direct line of fire of one of the jets, spraying everyone within a 10m radius. That was excellent, because it wasn’t AT ALL FREEZING that night. Then we went back to the Muslim Quarter for spicy noodle soup and deep fried bananas on a stick.
Prying ourselves away from food for a few hours, the next day was allocated to a Terra-cotta Warrior Day-trip. We piled into a mini van, and had an introduction from our guide Ja-Ja. Or, if you’d prefer her western name, Lady Ja-Ja.
There are currently three active excavation pits for the terra-cotta warriors. Starting from least to most excavated, the sequence we took was Pit 2, Pit 3 then Pit 1 as the grand finale. The pits are open to the public during the day, and are worked on by teams archaeologists at night. The army was made to protect the Qing Emperor in his afterlife. They were made taller than real life Chinese men, to be more impressive and imposing; and were originally extremely colourful. Once oxygenated, however, the majority of colour faded away.
You can still see where the wooden roof beams are, and where woven mats used to be due to impressions left on the stone. All the warriors faces are individual and are modelled off the faces of workers who made them; some of the warriors also have workers names engraved in them. They did this because they knew as soon as their work was finished, they would be executed in order to keep the location of the emperors army a secret. The same emperor who believed mercury would grant him immortality, so he drank a potion of it everyday.
The soil surrounding the Qin Tomb is so saturated in mercury, the Chinese don’t actually have the technology to excavate it. Records concerning the tomb say that there is a replica of the surrounding landscape in there, made of precious metals, gems and jewels, with lakes and rivers made of mercury.
You have the option of hiring a golf cart to scoot around the mountain; but according to Lady Ja-Ja “don’t do it. Same thing, just other side”.
That night, the hostel staff taught us how to make proper Chinese dumplings; we then ate them all and took advantage of our “1 free beer” ticket.
Then us three, along with Gen and Helena hit up the Park Qin bar below the hostel for $5 cocktails,
…a metric shit-tonne of secondhand smoking, and chats with our new friends American Charles and UK James
James somehow convinced us to join him and his group of people to hit up the bar street a few blocks away. As soon as we got outside and met the Dragon Tour full of loud, piggy backing, whooping, fun loving, Geordie Shore 20somethings we felt the twilight zone wrapping around us.
It was the point where one girl dropped so many “Fish n Chips” into a sentence we didn’t think it was linguistically possible, and then pretended to smackdown someone with a wooden chair that we decided to take a sneaky traveller beer each and head back to the hostel.
On the way we stumbled across police, and the Australian in us got all paranoid about being fined, or WORSE: having our beer taken away! We then realised that Chinese police couldn’t actually give a flying fat rats about our open alcohol in public, and the homeless Chinese man chasing us for our beers was a much more imminent threat.
The following day we decided it was high time we cultured our sorry selves and visited a museum. We caught the bus with the locals (always an interesting experience) and found the line to the museum to be approximately 400 people long because the museum was giving out free tickets. So we had no choice but to take ourselves to the international cinema to see the new Disney Cinderella movie.
All in all the rest of Xi’an was spent eating in The Muslim Quarter, drinking cheap cocktails, and meeting American Charles at the bar to hear all about how he survived Death Mountain (AKA Mt Huashan)
And Heeeerrreee is Death Mountain:
Next train is a 16hour hard sleeper to to Chengdu! Bring on those pandas!!
China 22nd – 25th March: OVERNIGHT TRAINS AND PINGYAO
We decided to get out of dodge (read: check the hell out of Beijing) early, left the hostel in the dark, lugged our giant bags to the metro and, with a lot of google translate and general confusion managed to find the waiting room for our night train. Midnight on a Sunday, we thought. Nice and quiet, we thought!
Saying the place was crowded, noisy and filthy is an understatement. We got our first taste of train station creeps…
…and insane pushing and shoving to get to assigned seats and beds. We’d already decided 9.5 hours? Huh! We don’t need beds! We can rough it! We can be like the locals! It’ll just be like sitting on a plane! Easy!
The overnight train was definitely an experience, they weren’t lying when they call them “hard seats”; and so many people buy standing tickets, then sit in your legs space. So us giant, long legged, uninitiated westerners basically didn’t stand a chance. After our gruelling, sleepless night, feeling our spines compacting and feeling as though our kneecaps were about to dislocate, we FINALLY arrived at Ping Yao around 9am. We proceeded to wander around Ancient City section of town with our 30kgs each of luggage strapped to our exhausted bodies for over 40minutes, getting lost in a 3km square radius like the orienteering genii we are. GOLF CART TAXI IT IS!!! When our cart driver escorted us to our hostel (we’d try to call and email about 10 times to say we were arriving early), we not only discovered they’d changed the hostel name, but phone number as well and don’t check their emails too often. Stellar work ethic, guys! After lots of confusion, charades and cracking out the XE app to tell them how much they should be charging us (bit useless, honestly) we got there in the end.
After our harrowing hard seat ordeal, our first day in Pingyao was basically a write off. Our “one hour snooze” turned into a two our dead sleep, we foraged for local food (Pingyao Beef is definitely an interesting experience…), wandered some smoothly paved city streets, braved the freezing cold, outside, filth showers, and went back to bed.
We all greeted the morning with nasally voices and a whole lot of snot. An appropriate parting gift from Our Mate Beijing. Fun times are ahead! We wandered down to the 10RMB breakfast ($2’s guys! Bargain!!) with high hopes, only to find pickled mystery vegetables, weird beans, FAKE pork buns (so disappointed) and a pile of cold, boiled eggs. Ping Yao was our opportunity to recoup and recover, both from Beijing and the horror train ride, get over our brand new head colds, and prepare ourselves for Xi’an. Staying inside the Old City walls is a lovely little pocket of markets shops and restaurants to potter though.
We’re so glad we stopped off in Ping Yao – we met two amazing girls from the UK, Helena and Gen, on our Pyjama Morning in the Courtyard day (we really did rest up guys. Don’t underestimate our Ping Yao laziness); we bonded over corncakes and travel stories, convinced them to come to Xi’an with us through our sheer awesomeness, then organised a dinner lady date.
Our last day in Ping Yao, we hit up the street food stalls. Corn cakes, Cabbage fritters, Ping Yao Zinger burgers, corn on the cob, cold spicy noodles and Ping Yao popcorn chicken. We’re making Melbourne Foodies proud! We went out for dinner with our newest friends, the lucky things, then the five of us proceeded to walk the 30mins through the pitch black streets of Ping Yao to catch our overnight train to Xi’an, our packs making us look like the gang of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: China Edition
The Ping Yao train station was so relaxing compared to Beijing, with only about 15 people waiting for the midnight train. We were even escorted to where our hard-sleeper carriage was meant to be docking.
Stumbling onto the train in the dark, we found our allocated beds (with a little bit of help) and the three of us proceeded to crowd around Ashleigh’s bed, staring at the guy already snoozing in it.
When he woke to us three bears staring down at him with definite wtf faces on, Chinese Goldilocks simply sat up, shrugged on his coat jacket and made his merry little way back to the Standing Only section. Guys got game.
We were helped with our bags by Chinese Spiderman on one of the top bunks, who practically somersaulted midair from one bunk to another whilst helping stow our giant bags. Then we gracefully hoisted, rolled and wriggled our way into our own beds, trying pretty hard to not think of how many people we’ve shared the pillow with…
Next Up: Xi’an, Shuyuan Party Hostel, Mad Hatter Emperors, Terra-cotta Armies and Flaming Cocktails.