A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: amysblog

The highs (and lows) of Zhangjiajie

Mountains and monkeys, caves and canyons.

semi-overcast 6 °C

Spring Festival is approaching which means that we Foreign Teachers have broken up for a whole SEVEN WEEKS - I had already had a week off before Will finished and spent it getting ready for travelling and doing a bit of preparation for next semester, as I’m fairly sure I will have forgotten how to teach after this adventure.

The first stop on our itinerary was Zhangjiajie, a mountain range in mid China, which is growing more and more famous, especially after parts of it were used to film Avatar. We have spent 3 days exploring this little part of the world and it has blown my mind... We arrived fairly late in the city on Sunday night and had ‘made friends’ with a group of women on the plane, one of whom insisted on dropping us at our hostel- something that would NEVER happen in the bigger cities. It was only a short car journey and when we arrived at the hostel, the staff were very helpful in terms of planning the next day. Unfortunately our room was a bit of a let down, it was huge but freezing, with no central heating and an aircon that didn’t work.

So after a chilly first night, we set off in search of the avatar mountains. The day got off to a rocky start because the journey from the city is fairly complicated, involving a public bus and then transferring to a minibus around the back of a bus station which isn’t really signposted and so it took us a fair while until we were settled into our minibus for an extremely bumpy ride up to the National Park. Luckily for us, we met two local Chinese girls on the minibus who happily let us follow them for the afternoon and so made our lives extremely easy. We did a 3.5km hike up to one of the lower peaks, it was a fairly cool day but with all the steps we were very warm.

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the mountaineering team

On the way up, we encountered monkeys at various stages. Perhaps the most exhilarating part of the hike was a monkey attack. It was all because of a lollipop that one of the girls had given to me. Out of nowhere, a pack of monkeys came racing from higher up the mountain and headed right for me. One of them was trying to climb up my leg and so I had to launch the lollipop into the foliage in a bid to save myself and the others. Luckily, we all survived, but I was a lot warier about eating from there on...

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views ft. monkey

When we reached the top, we were absolutely astounded by the views, even though the visibility wasn’t fantastic, it really was beautiful. However, it was nothing in comparison to the views we experienced two days later upon our return to the park, when the weather had improved.

On the day between our mountain visits, we went to the Glass Bridge and Grand Canyon. On the bus on the way up we met a nice German couple who had done a similar hike to us the day before and had also experience a monkey attack! Unfortunately the weather was still quite foggy so the views from the bridge weren’t great but we could still see quite a lot... I think it would have been terrifying had we been able to see right down into the canyon. We did walk part the way down to the canyon but the routes weren’t well sign posted and we were keen to also visit Huanglong Dong (Yellow Dragon Caves) so we decided to go back via many many many steps and cross the bridge again. We got to the caves which were absolutely enormous and we were taken by boat deep inside them, from where we followed a winding trail through huge tunnels and openings.

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Glass Bridge

That night we stayed in the small town of WulingYuan so we could get to the park earlier the next day - which was the day with the spectacular views. We started in the BaiLong lift which is a glass lift that goes up the side of the mountain. We used the buses to see more of the park and went up much higher, where the monkeys were friendlier and saw the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain. The best part of it was the Tianzi Mountain Peak. There were several viewing platforms which all, impossibly, seemed to offer an even better view that the one before. We spent ages absorbing the views and finding isolated viewing platforms, before we decided to walk down to the base in order to get a bus down to the city.

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On the way down, the Sun was setting as we headed into the increasingly dense forest which provided us with even more photo opportunities! We also met some other Brits on the way down who we got on the same bus back to the city with. It was nice to chat to some other people doing a similar thing to us and distract us from the intensity of the descent. The number of steps I climbed up and down that day have had a severe effect on my legs for the last few days.

On our last day in Zhangjiajie, we had planned to go to Tianmen Mountain which is south of the city and much closer, however due to restoration / bad weather / other unknown reasons, the mountain remained closed longer than anticipated so we were unable to go. The weather was bad anyway so instead we walked into the drizzly city centre for a look around. It’s a very strange place at the moment, obviously it is low-season, something that made our trip very enjoyable, but from the deserted open air bar areas I can imagine the city has a bustling centre during the summer. The scenery here has well and truly blown my mind but I think we are ready to leave Zhangjiajie, or at least ready to get to a warmer hostel!

Next stop Chengdu!

Posted by amysblog 08:07 Archived in China Tagged mountains monkeys nature hiking travel caves china Comments (0)

Chilli-ing in Chengdu

A taste of Sichuan Province

semi-overcast 10 °C

A Weekend in Chengdu

Chengdu captured our hearts the very evening we arrived. Taking a stroll around the area near our hostel, it was easy to feel the difference in the atmosphere compared to Beijing or Shanghai. Chengdu is still huge, don’t get me wrong, but the people seem more laid back and a lot friendlier.

Arriving late afternoon, we didn’t venture too far on our first afternoon/ evening, but rather followed a suggested walking tour off a map from our (lovely and cozy) hostel. It took us into some incredibly local areas, down narrow pedestrian streets full of vendors selling everything from dried pig faces (nice image, right?) to little cakes. It’s safe to say that I felt rather out of place- but these streets are the very essence of Chinese neighbourhoods and were bubbling with life. Continuing the walking route, we found ourselves in a new built area where the streets were lined with small shops and tea houses. We stopped at a crossroads for a bottomless cup of tea each and people watched for an hour or so before heading back to the hostel for some cheap dinner.

The next day was the main event - Chengdu’s Giant Panda Research Centre. We got up at 6 (ish) and managed to find a taxi in the sleeping city. We got to the Centre before it opened and there was already a small queue forming at the ticket office. The sun was yet to rise so we had to use our phone lights on our way up to see the first pandas. We were lucky enough to be completely alone in the first panda house, where two out of three of the pandas were still asleep. It completely took my breath away to see the bears in such an intimate setting. We waited and saw the other two wake up slowly. It was an incredible start to the day and introduction to the pandas.

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We then carried on further into the park. There were a few more people arriving and the sun had risen so more of the pandas were starting to move around. I could spend hours writing about the fantastic experience we had but I’m not sure I’d ever do it justice. My favourite moments were those when we found ourselves in quiet spots with a pair of pandas to watch as they ate their bamboo breakfast. We were also lucky enough to see the red pandas feeding on what looked like butternut squash. They were extremely cute and rather more agile than their giant relatives. We spent hours wandering around and being mesmerised by these creatures. It was undoubtably a highlight of China so far.

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Later in the day, we headed back to the city and visited Renmin Park, a lively park which was full of residents going about their business such as performing traditional dance, strength competitions, character writing using water and playing in an orchestra... every corner we turned brought us to more curious business and kept us entertained. After the park, we visited an area which is called Kuanzhai Xiangzi. At first sight, it appeared to be rather hutong-y but Chengdu style. The narrow streets were absolutely packed with people looking at the folk crafts and were lined with circular gates leading into ‘ancient’ courtyards. It was a beautiful area and we strolled around, grabbing a few snacks along the way.

On our way back to the hostel for a rest, we stopped at Wenshu Monastery for a quick look around. By this point we were pretty knackered but the monastery’s gardens provided a sanctuary of quiet.

That evening, we headed back out to meet up with some Germans we had met in Zhangjiajie for dinner. The hostel recommended us a Hot Pot restaurant where we could have a split pot - half spicy, half mild- which sounded perfect, as Will and I were keen to try some Sichuanese spice. The restaurant was awesome we had to queue for a table, the atmosphere was fantastic and the ceiling was lined with red lanterns which gave the place a very special feel. It soon became apparent, however, when the cauldron-like pot arrived, that “spicy” in these parts could rather be described as “lethal”. The majority of the bubbling pot was taken up with the spicy (lethal) soup which was laced with so many chillies that just inhaling made me cough. After a lot of stilted Chinese, we managed to change it so that only the small section of the pot was spicy and all of us thoroughly enjoyed cooking our food selection in the milder of the two pots... I did cook some of my food in the spicy part but the milder version was a lot easier to eat!

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the lethal soup

The next day, we took a train out to Leshan to see a giant Buddha that was carved into a cliff several hundred years ago. Both Will and I were keen for some more steps after Zhangjiajie so we decided to do the ‘hike’ up to to his (huge) head and then down the cliff to his (huge) feet. It wasn’t the kind of hike we had in mind however, yes there were steps, but with many other people also trying to follow the route, it was more of a very leisurely stroll. The Buddha was very impressive and so was the scenery; in front of the Buddha, three rivers meet, and beyond them you can see the skyline of the city. We really enjoyed seeing such a huge carving and the relaxed walk through the bamboo jungle back down to the village before getting the bus back to the train station. We grabbed some street food off a cart outside the station and ate it in the sunshine before heading back to Chengdu.

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Leshan

Back in the city, we took a bus up to Jin Li Street, another area full of old style buildings which was even more impressive and picturesque than the previous day. The bus was a great way to see some different parts of the city and really made me realise how much Chengdu has to offer. In Jin Li Street, we stopped at a bar serving real beer and absorbed our surroundings as it turned dark and the red lights started lighting up. I love spending time in these ‘ancient’ streets because it really feels like old China and they often bring your expectations of China to life in an intoxicating manner. After wandering the streets for a while, we left to find some dinner in the form of a mild hot pot...

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Jin Li Street

We left Chengdu this morning - I’m writing this on the plane - and we were both sad to be leaving. Chengdu is possibly one of my favourite cities I’ve visited so far and I think there is so much more to see there. Hopefully there’ll be a chance to visit again. But in the meantime, we are heading north to Harbin where temperatures of -25 degrees C await... time for a different type of chilly!

Posted by amysblog 08:18 Archived in China Tagged food travel city china panda sichuan chengdu hotpot Comments (0)

Too Cold to Handle: Harbin

Ice ice baby

sunny -29 °C

We arrived at Harbin Airport early evening and stepping off the plane we got a teeny insight into the cold we would experience over the next few days - our breath met the freezing air in huge puffs of steam, the novelty soon wearing off. We got a public bus transfer into the city centre and were treated to glimpses of illuminated ice sculptures along the way and when we got off the bus at our stop, we were instantly drawn to a lovely pedestrianised street that had a canopy of lights and music playing. It turned out our hostel was just off this street, so, after dumping our bags we headed out to find some food and to explore a bit.

The street is called Zhongyang Street and it was decorated with small ice sculptures and lined with buildings that had an obvious western influence - very different to any street I’ve seen in China thus far. The twinkling lights and jolly music made it seem rather Christmassy, it was great. By the time we had eaten (some fairly grim fish dumplings recommended by the hostel owners) and strolled around, we were really starting to feel the cold but arriving at night set the tone for a great stay in Harbin.

The second day was the absolute highlight. Waking up to a comfortable -29 degrees Celsius, we donned several layers, heat patches and heated insoles and set off for the bus. We had meant to go to the Snow Exhibition but ended up at the Ice and Snow festival which was utterly breathtaking. We arrived during the day and stayed until well past sunset, darting amongst the huge ice sculptures to the coffee houses to keep warm, as minutes after stepping out, our eyelashes would be frozen and gloves were not doing the trick. The sculptures we saw were unimaginably huge and detailed and after dark they were lit up with bright light patterns. We both absolutely loved it. Later on, we went to a great little restaurant for dinner in a backstreet off Zhongyang Street which was some of the best Chinese food I’ve had for a long time.

The downside was that doing the Ice Festival first, nothing else that we saw could compare. The following day we went to the Snow Exhibition which was a snow carving competition with some huge and intricate carvings but the Exhibition was much smaller and the atmosphere not as lively. After sunset, we went to have a look at Zhaolin Park, which has an Ice Lantern Festival, and again, although it was really very beautiful, it paled in comparison to the previous day. We tried out another restaurant recommended by the hostel but had a bit of a nightmare, they barely had anything left on the menu, but the one dish they did have arrived at our table before we had even finished ordering and as we were contemplating leaving... it was tasty but the experience left us feeling rather exasperated with the day as a whole.

On our final day, we went to St Sophia’s Square which has a small, old Russian church standing in the middle of it. It looked very quaint, like it belonged in toy town, standing in the centre of such a huge space. We went inside as it is now a picture museum about the development of Harbin. Some of the photos were interesting but I was mostly surprised by how tiny the church was inside! By the time we left, it was time for us to head back towards Harbin Airport and onwards towards Tokyo. The ice festival was more magical than I could have ever imagined or that I could ever describe but I was definitely ready for warmer climates.

Posted by amysblog 03:30 Archived in China Tagged snow travel city ice china harbin tefl Comments (0)

Turning 24 in Tokyo

sunny -1 °C

Tokyo

On the plane on the way to Tokyo, we discovered that our flight would be arriving into one of the largest airports in the world around 10.15pm and the last train to the city was at 11.05pm. If we missed it, it was going to be £200 for a cab, or, more likely, an uncomfortable night in the airport. The hostess on the flight advised us it was more or less impossible... Challenge accepted. At 10.30pm we were still on the bus between the plane and immigration. At around 10.40pm we were nearing the front of the immigration desk, from where we legged it through baggage (thank god for hand luggage) and customs, stopped at an ATM and then did a 1km sprint with our backpacks to the station. There was a short queue for tickets but someone showed us how to use the machine and miraculously, we made it to the platform with time to get a sprite out of a vending machine. It was such a relief but it wasn’t over yet. As we were on the last train and it took around 1.5 hours, we missed the connecting subway and so we ended up walking about half an hour to get to our air bnb, where we eventually arrived at about 1.30am to experience a power cut which we had to resolve because it cut the heating off. And whilst Tokyo was about 27 degrees warmer than Harbin, it was still below freezing.

Naturally after such a hectic night, we decided to get up early to make the most of our time. We sluggishly got ready and headed out to explore our corner of Tokyo, Asakusa. We hadn’t got far before we found a diner-esque cafe to grab some breakfast and, more importantly, coffee. Walking into that cafe was the best thing that could have happened to us that morning. We were greeted by the friendliest of staff and a good breakfast dinner that put unwavering smiles on our faces for our entire stay. Asakusa was the perfect location. There were so many things to see just steps from our front door, including a temple, shopping streets, a beautiful park and the view of the opposite river bank.

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We strolled around for a good part of the day in Asakusa before tackling the Tokyo Metro system to go to Shibuya and witness the ‘Shibuya Scramble’ crossing. It was pretty cool to see, we watched the lights turn red and seemingly the entire population of Tokyo cross the road from the second floor of a big shopping mall before getting stuck in ourselves. We wondered around Shibuya and got a drink while we waited for darkness to fall so that we could see the neon lights. Our next after-dark stop was the observatory at the Government Building in Shinjuku which is free (!!) and gives panoramic views of the city from the 48th floor. It was breathtaking to see the sheer expanse of the city completely lit up.

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Our final stop was Ebisu, an area renowned for its Izakayas, kind of like Japanese Tapas bars. We weren’t sure what to expect but we certainly weren’t expecting to be so intimidated by these little venues. The problem was that they were so tiny and intimate and very few had a menu at all, let alone an English one. Tired and hungry, we traipsed around feeling more and more disheartened until finally we summoned the courage to take the plunge. And it was fantastic. Seeing us struggle to decipher the menu, one of the women sitting next to us at the bar turned to us and offered her help and recommendations which we readily accepted. We had a fantastic meal and it was the perfect way to finish the day before we caught the last subway back to Asakusa.

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The next day was my birthday and so, after an exhausting day the previous day, we got up at 6am. For good reason though, we were off to the Sumo box office to try our luck at getting tickets for the Sumo competition which was sold out apart from a few tickets they release on the day. Luck was on our side and we got the tickets with ease. We decided to take advantage of being up and out so early, by visiting Tokyo’s Fabius fish market. It may not seem like your usual birthday treat, but it was incredible to see the wholesale section of the market which only opens to the public at 10am. It was so vibrant and lively and gave a real insight into the traditional methods and trading of the Japanese fish market.

We then went to the Imperial Palace Gardens located more or less at Tokyo’s geographical centre, stopping at a small Italian restaurant under the railway lines for a delicious lunch. The gardens were huge but not particularly special in any other way. It was sunny, despite being cold so we sat on a bench for a bit before strolling around the surrounding area which was pretty swanky, with lots of tall modern buildings before heading back for the Sumo. Sumo is not something I’ve ever really looked into or taken seriously, but it soon became evident how sacred and ritualised the sport is in Japan. When we arrived, there were people waiting to have photos with some of the Champions, who humbly walk down the street from their “stables”, where they live and train before a competition. The match was sold out but our seats, despite being far back, had really good views and for the next few hours we were completely sucked in to the Sumo bubble. I really really enjoyed watching the fighting, it was far more dignified than I had expected and the fighters were very agile, perhaps even elegant, given their size.

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On our third and final day, we took the time to wander around Asakusa again in the morning before exploring the nearby area of Ueno. We didn’t know much about the area before we arrived and so we were suitably surprised when we found it to be a manic street sellers and street food market. Our initial attempt at lunch was not too successful, octopus cake balls. Our second attempt was even less so, as after deciding to go straight into a local place, the most appealing thing on the menu was ‘guts stew’. Yum. Our third attempt was far more satisfying- we got a big bowl of udon noodles and tempura vegetables in an upstairs restaurant that had a view down onto the busy street below.

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After lunch we headed to Roppongi Hills to look around the area and stopped for a while for a rest and to look at the next leg of our journey as we hadn’t really had time to sort anything out. By the time we came out, it was nearing sunset and so at the last minute we decided to go up to the observatory they have there. It was cool to see a different perspective of the city as the sun set and to watch all the lights come on, the perfect way to end an awesome three days in Tokyo.

Reluctantly we headed towards the airport and prepared for the overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur, but Japan, we’ll be back!

Posted by amysblog 18:21 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo japan travel city izakaya sumo Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur

KL's culture and curry.

semi-overcast 32 °C

The overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur was surprisingly restful and arriving into a much warmer climate with blue skies (despite the bad weather forecast) perked us up too. We stopped briefly in the airport for a drink and snack, as our budget flight had included ZERO refreshments and then set off in search of the public bus to get us to the city. With relative ease we managed to get a ticket for around £1.50 for the hour long journey. The journey gave us the opportunity to see some of the lush, jungle-like landscapes. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but the vibrancy of our first impressions stayed with us throughout or short stay.

Arriving in the city, we drove through Little India and the bus stopped not far from it. By this time it was about 10am and we couldn’t check in to our hostel until 2pm so we donned our back packs and tried to find our way back to Little India, which didn’t take long. We had a wander around some of the streets there which were lined with painted archways and had a back drop of modern skyscrapers and blue skies, before deciding to get some proper food in a little canteen. It was quite quiet when we walked in and it turned out to be a buffet which suited us just fine. The food was INCREDIBLE. Possibly the best we’ve had on this entire trip. So fresh, so authentic and so wholesome, we ate until we were stuffed. The bill for two buffet plates and a large bottle of water? Around £3.

It really was too hot to carry the backpacks around for much longer so our next challenge was getting on the metro to the hostel. The metro system isn’t particularly user friendly because at the transfer stations there is usually a mall that you have to navigate through to find a different lines. And the malls are massive. We ended up being side tracked on our way through but eventually made it to the metro, which was deliciously cool thanks to the A/C and went overground, above the city, to our stop so we got some great views on the way.

The hostel was in a street which had an array of colourful but shabby facades and was very charming. It was also a stones throw from China Town and the Colonial Area, so after a quick freshen up, we went straight back out to walk around the city and we absolutely loved it. Every corner we turned brought more colours and character, with evident international influences from India, China, the UK (a cricket house and lawn) and the Middle East. The city is a huge melting pot of culture and it’s absolutely awesome.

An evening downpour sent us back towards the hostel and in search of dinner (though nothing would ever match the first meal) and bargains in China Town. As it happened, we had arrived in the middle of a Hindu Festival and so locals were giving out free food and drinks in the street which demonstrated how truly hospitable the country is towards everyone. A march carrying a golden religious statue which had started from outside our hostel earlier in the evening passed the street where we sat to have (second) dinner and when it quietened down we headed back to the hostel for a much needed sleep.

The next day after a quick breakfast, we set off towards the iconic Petronas Towers and spent a large part of our day in the surrounding area, firstly trying to sort out some admin-y bits and bobs and then making the most of the beautifully landscaped park which sprawls beneath the towers and finally going for a look around the huge udnerground shopping centre, where we found... wait for it... a Marks and Spencer, among other things. Later in the day we tried to visit THE Kuala Lumpur Mosque, but unfortunately, our hostel had given us the wrong information regarding opening hours, so that was slightly disappointing but all in all, the city had completely mesmerised us but it was already time for us to pack our bags in anticipation of heading to Vietnam the next morning...

Posted by amysblog 04:35 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food mosque culture market malaysia city towers curry Comments (0)

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