Hi from Suzhou – my little yellow bicycle‏

Welcome to part 4 of my updates from China – the story of my little yellow
bicycle.

Where’s part 3 you ask (the story of the rampaging monkeys) – it’s back in
my hotel room. Usually I write what I want to send, so then I just type it
out when I find an Internet cafe. But it’s been a while since I’ve had time
to access the Internet, and I just came across this one while going for a
walk, so instead of hearing about monkeys I’ll tell you about my bicycle.

The tour finished on Friday night with dinner, drinks & dancing.  Sandra the
quiet Swiss girl was the surprise packet, she really knew how to dance.
Although I thought my dancing on the bar was pretty darn good.

We really had a great time together.  I don’t think I’ll find a group of
people who are so much fun to travel with again.  It was a wide range of
ages, but we just seemed to gel.

Some statistics for you:
– Number of people who either lost the keys to the locks on their bags or
who accidently changed the combination of their locks:  3 (including me)
– Favourite beer:  Snow beer – I can even drink it warm.
– Number of times I missed the bus:  once (went out to the Summer Palace in
Beijing and got stuck in a traffic jam coming back, so missed the bus to the
Kung fu show.  Spent almost 2 hours standing squashed on a bus. Train system
in Beijing is good, but in terms of cars it is one big parking lot.)
– Number of times I used my umbrella:  once to get from the bus to the
hotel.  It has only rained twice and both times we were sitting on the bus.
I think I’ll be coming home with a slight tan.
– Amount of weight I’ve lost:  zero – I think there may be a slight gain due
to the increased consumption of ice-cream
– Number of things I lost down the drop toilets:  zero (but there were a
number of close shaves).  I actually grew to love the squat toilets and it
appears that I wasn’t the worst at using them.  We discovered towards the
end of the trip that Garrith (one of the UK lads) was fully taking off his
trousers whenever he needed to squat, as he couldn’t work out how to go to
the toilet without getting his pants dirty.

Okay enough of that.

My plane from Beijing to Shanghai was delayed by several hours.  We could
see parts of the plane sitting on the tarmac.  I didn’t know whether to be
concerned or relieved that they appeared to be doing maintenance.  As a
result of the delay I didn’t get to my hotel in Shanghai until 7.30 at
night, and one of Neil’s contacts had organised for someone to meet me and
show me around the city at 3pm.  The poor girl had sat in the hotel lobby
for over 3 hours waiting for me before leaving me a message and going home.
I called her when I finally got in, and she then insisted on coming back and
showing me around the Bund at night.

The next day I went shopping in Shanghai before catching a train to Suzhou.
Here I met another of Neil’s contacts who helped me hire my little yellow
bicycle, and for the last two days I’ve been riding around, visiting the
city’s beautiful gardens and just veging out before I catch the plane home
tonight.

My little yellow bicycle was a girl’s bike (where the handle bars are higher
than the seat) – don’t think I’ve ridden such a bike since I was about 8.
It had a seat that was very uncomfortable and which I couldn’t seem to
raise.  It had a basket on the front and a bell that didn’t work.  Oh and it
didn’t have gears and the brakes didn’t really work – my feet were more
effective.  And no helmets over here either.

Have you got a mental picture yet?  Now just imagine me pedalling along
singing “riding along on my push-bike honey”.  Okay – I think that completes
the picture.

I had a ball!  I couldn’t think of any better way to finish my holiday.

I’m still not entirely sure of the road rules, but the Chinese were quite
considerate and would honk their horns at me whenever I was in their way.
Which ended up being quite a lot.  At one stage I almost found myself on an
express way.  I didn’t know how to cross the road (too busy), so I had no
option but to turn around and ride in the opposite direction against the
traffic.  It was peak hour for bikes, and I as I turned my bike around all I
could see was hundreds of bikes heading straight for me.

At some of the main crossings they actually have a guy that directs the
traffic and another dude who controls the bikes.  And at some places you
actually pay someone to look after you bike (even though you also lock it).
Another funny thing that happened is I received some local adverts in my
basket.  I had stopped at one of the gardens and when I came back to my bike
I had all these flyers for the supermarket in my basket.  It was almost like
when you get flyers put under your windscreen wiper.

Mum – if you are reading this – don’t panic I survived and the bike has been
returned.

Suzhou has been a cool place to hang out.  It is an old canal city, but is
quickly becoming quite industrial.  There are still parts that have a lot of
charm, and the gardens are lovely.

Anyway, that’s all from me.  I have to dash back to the hotel and check out
before noon, and then catch a train back to Shanghai.

Back tomorrow, and back at work Thursday.

See you.

Lots of love
Alison

Hi from Chengdu, China

Welcome to part 2 of my insights from China – a country of rubble and cranes… The amount of building and infrastructure work going on over here is absolutely amazing.

We were all quite sad to leave Yangshuo, as we’d had a great time. We headed back to Guilin where we caught a train to Wuhan. I was wrong about the train being a soft sleeper – it was another hard sleeper.  From Wahan we had a never ending bus ride to Yichang. The traffic around Wahan was crazy. We were stuck in a traffic jam for about an hour. But no one really minded, we just sat there and watched everyone go about their everyday life. I did get a bit of a shock though when I saw a taxi man get out of his car and relieve himself in the middle of the traffic jam. I wasn’t sure if I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing until I saw the tell-tale puddle near his car. There was another poor Chinese man stuck in the back of a truck with a load of fruit. I think that would have been an uncomfortable journey. 

We eventually made it out of the city and crossed a bridge where we had our first viewing of the mighty Yangtze. A very swollen, fast flowing brown river. Much dirtier than the Yarra!

We didn’t arrive in Yichang until after 4pm (we were supposed to be there for lunch). As well as the traffic jam there were road works everywhere.  No one could sleep on the bus, as just as we would be falling asleep we would suddenly jump out of our seats as the bus flew through a pot hole or dodged around some rubble. Unlike Australia where we do small sections – they seem to do huge long stretches at once, and there doesn’t seem to be as much of the big machinery that we use. A lot of the men just seemed to be using sledge hammers and picks.

From Yichang we caught a boat for our 3 day cruise down the Yangtze. I don’t know where to begin to describe the boat to you. Let’s start with the good things. Firstly I made it back to land, so the boat must have been sea-worthy, but that wasn’t something that I was confident about when I first got on. Oh – the beds were the softest we’ve had, and I had the best sleep I’ve had on this trip, and I suppose the meals were okay, but I think that’s because I was hungry.

I’m struggling a bit with the food. I keep trying the local dishes, but there isn’t a lot I like. There seems to be lots of noodles in the morning – particularly on the trains and boat. They’ve all got these bowls of noodles and you just add hot water and satchels of flavouring. I just can’t come at noodles for breakfast. I mean I don’t eat 2 minute noodles at home, so there’s no way I can do it here. I was going to bakeries and buying stuff from there for breakfast, but that really only worked in Hong Kong. Here I’m finding that the bakery stuff is way too sweet. Everything I try has weird stuff in it, is really sweet or drenched in butter or so oily. I can’t walk into a bakery now without my tummy doing flip flops. Having said that I’ve had the occasional really yummy meal, and I’m getting quite good with my chopsticks. Had Yak meat tonight which was beautiful. Not sure about the little birds on sticks, or the chicken heads, necks, feet, etc. Best snacks I’ve found so far are ice-creams – I’ve tried numerous varieties, and haven’t had a bad one yet!

Now where was I? Ah yes, the Yangtze trip, and the boat. Well I’ve told you the good things about the boat. We were staying in First Class, but it was the worst first class I’ve ever seen. The rooms were so musty. The first thing Sam (girl I’ve been sharing a room with) and I did was take off the lovely leopard print doona, and got out our sleep sheets. We were both dying for a shower, as it had been 2 days since our last one, but we took one look at the shower (which was the toilet as well), and we went hunting in our bags for our thongs. I forgot to mention that the toilet was western style, but there was a disturbing pool of water that you had to stand it to go to the toilet. The drainage in our toilet/shower was less than ideal. I attempted a shower (cold water – no hot), but it was almost impossible because our shower head was dribbling water (no pressure) in every direction, but not right down. If you haven’t realised by now I am quite girly when it comes to my bathroom facilities, but I think after this trip I’ll be able to camp anywhere!

Despite the facilities on our boat, it was a very relaxing trip. The Yangtze trip was a real eye-opener, not for the beauty of the scenery (which didn’t come close to the area around Yangshuo), but for the shear magnitude of what the Chinese are doing with the 3 Gorges dam project. Before continuing I should mention that the cliffs of the 3 Gorges were nice, but I spent most of the time trying to imagine what they would have been like when the water level was 60 m lower. Gosh they would have been awesome then.

Before we got on the boat we went out to the dam site. It isn’t the dam that is amazing, but the other infrastructure they’ve put in place. New roads, tunnels, bridges, building of whole new cities in a few years, and relocation of so many people. When they destroy a town or building that the river is going to cover, they knock down the old buildings (otherwise they might become shipping hazards), they clean the bricks so they can be re-used, they stabilize the hillside and even kill all the rats! The water level is at 135m, and by the time the project is finished it will rise another 40m to 175m. So there is still lots of work going on and all along the river there are signs saying 175m. So you know where the water is going to rise to. All the way along I was trying to imagine the water level 60m lower, but at the same time trying to visualise it 40m higher.

All of the guides were very pro dam. I suppose they have to be. Some people would have liked relocating to brand new bigger apartments further up the hill, but I’m guessing a lot of the older people were reluctant to move., We stopped in at Fengdu, the “city of ghosts”. Most of the Chinese boat tourists got off the boat to visit the temples and statues devoted to the gods of the underworld, but our group just wandered around the rapidly disappearing city. The place looked like a bomb site. But the amazing thing was that there were still several hundred people living amongst the rubble. It was one place where you really didn’t want to bargain for your fruit or water. I pretty much just paid them what they wanted.

The people were so friendly and we stopped in at one place and had a beer. They tried to feed me, and took great delight in showing me the weirdest food they could find, and killed themselves laughing at my reactions. All the demolition seems to be happening by hand. They have these weird bamboo sledge hammers which they allowed me to try and swing – bit heavy for me.

Our tour group is getting along famously. Paul, one of the English lads is a constant source of amusement. Some of his antics reduce us to tears. The other night he performed a mock marriage between Pia (our tour leader) and a Chinese boat passenger. We had jokingly decided that she had proposed to him earlier that day when she offered him a piece of cake. Even since that moment he took a ‘real shinning’ to her and would pull up a chair and sit beside her whenever she was on the deck. We thought it was hilarious, and so did the group of people he was with. No one could understand a word of what each group was saying, but laughter broke down all the communication barriers. We were all roaring, clapping and crying with laughter.

As you can tell I’m still having a great time. (Despite some of the culture shocks.) Before I finish I’ll just mention a couple of other things that have struck me about China. Firstly the country does have a dirty fee about it. Mainly because of the rubbish, rubble, bathrooms and pollution. But the contradiction is that they have people sweeping the side or the highways… The other thing that I haven’t mentioned is the spitting. Yes there is lots & lots of it… At the moment it isn’t bothering me – it’s just part of the experience. The other day on the way to Chengdu I had great fun in counting the number of times the bus driver opened his window to spit. Between 7am and 8am I counted 5 huge big spits out the window. It got better – he only spat another 2 times after that. The women beside me spat into a plastic bag twice during the 4 hour bus trip.

Spent today visiting the pandas and wandering around Chengdu, a little city of oh about 11 million people!!! Crossing the street is almost a death wish. Vehicles don’t seem to pay any respect to the green men telling me I can walk. I swear I have no idea what the road rules are over here. Numerous times I could have sworn that the bus we’ve been in was going to be hit but some other moving vehicle, or worse we were going to clean up a cyclist or pedestrian. The only way to make it safely across the street is to wait until a local comes up and I just cross whenever they cross, and try to keep them between me and the cars, motorcycles, cyclists. I figure if they get hit first I might survive.

Must go – this has been an epic of an email. Tomorrow we’ve off to the big Buddha and Mount Emei where we are staying in local monasteries. I’m off now back to the hotel to take advantage of a great shower and a huge big bed – not sure what we’ll be getting at the monastery…

Take care.

Lots of love

BTW – HAPPY FATHERS DAY DAD!!!

Hi from Yangshuo, China

Currently sitting here in an Internet cafe trying to cool down after bike riding around the country side all day. It was fantastic, although I have never sweated so much in my life. Climbed all these steps up a big hill with a poor 60 year old Chinese woman fanning me all the way. I didn’t ask her to do it, but you couldn’t stop them, and then you felt like you had to give them some money or at least buy a drink from them.

The people so far are incredibly friendly, but always looking to make some money. I went cormorant fishing last night, and the guy tried to charge me 105 Yuan, when I was told it would cost 25 Yuan. He said 105, I said 25. He said 105, I said 25. And then he said (laughing) yeah of course 25. They are always trying to charge you extra, but they do it with a smile on their face. Having said that, things are incredibly cheap for us. I think 1 Yuan is 17c. This Internet cafe is costing me 2 Yuan for 1 hour.

Do you guys know what cormorant fishing is? I didn’t until I came here. Cormorants are birds, and they duck down and catch the fish, then the fisher man gets the bird and makes them bring up the fish they caught. The birds have strings around their necks so they can’t swallow the fish easily.

The Yangshuo area is stunning. We went for a ride down the Li River yesterday, which was absolutely beautiful. (Leanne: probably a bit similar to your photos from Vietnam.)

CIMG0048

Weather is fantastic – HOT!!! Around here seems to be a little less humid than Hong Kong. For those that don’t know I had my hair chopped before leaving home. It’s much more shorter and layered. To be honest it looks a bit like a mullet, but might be a bit better when it grows and I can tie it back. Anyway I arrived in Hong Kong with straight hair, and by lunchtime the humidity had made it curly. I kind of look like a shaggy dog, but at least it’s cool.

The people on the trip are very nice. The tour leader is Danish/Canadian, and the others on the trip are Australian, New Zealand, English and Swiss. The funniest guys would have to be the two 19 year old English lads. One of them is particularly naive, and we are having a heap of fun with him. The poor bloke lost his passport on one of the trains we were on. After searching the train we eventually found it in the pockets of one of the older chaps. They were all drinking and no one can remember how it got there.

The train rides are certainly an experience. It was on our first train ride that I had my first ever encounter with a squat toilet. It didn’t start well… Someone had left me a big brown surprise in the first one I went into. After doing a girly scream and running out, I decided to try my luck in another carriage. I survived. But only after a lot of indecision about which way I should face. Yes I know it makes perfect sense, but my brain wasn’t functioning. All I was trying to do was not focus on the smell.

I mentioned before that the people were friendly, well I had forgotten how pushy they can be. None of “after you” – they all just push forward and try and get on the train, even though we all had tickets and the train wasn’t due to leave. Man you could get trampled in the stampede.

We leave Yanhshuo tomorrow. We have another overnight train trip. This time in a soft sleeper. No it doesn’t mean we get softer beds. (The beds here are like bits of wood.) It just means that we have 4 bunks instead of 6, and our compartment has a door. The next stage of the trip is the Yangzu River.

Better go, off to dinner. Today is the first time I’ve really felt like eating. Must be the exercise. Up until now I just haven’t been hungry, mainly because of the heat. I sort of finish the day and realise that I’ve only had one meal, and all I’ve been doing is drinking water.

Hope things are well.