Monday, December 11, 2006

Lombok & Back to Bali

After leaving Gili Air it was back to mainland Lombok and I decided to stop off at Sengiggi beach. A small-ish bay on the West coast, one of several judging by the bus journey, each is separated by a high pass up the mountains to the next. Quite a few boats in the harbour, and some yachts drifting further out to sea. I went for a stroll along the waterfront and was ambushed by students practising their English. Armed with notebooks and tape recorders they launched into a quick interview with the usual where do you come from? Still at least quite a few people had at least heard of Scotland. In fact, Highlander seems popular here. One guy asked me if the story was true! Probably thinks we run around lopping off heads in the quest for immortality. Braveheart, bagpipes, whisky and guys in skirts are the other cultural icons sometime known.

Come Saturday night time it was quite lively with a few bands playing in open air pubs. Playing mostly English language songs with the occasional local song thrown into the mix. Mixed in with the ever popular English Premier League kicking off at 10p.m. and the pub was fairly busy. Obviously a lot of Asians watch the footy as Chang and Air-Asia advertise yet only sell in Asia.

The next day I continued down to the capital of Lombok, Mataram. A busy little town I decided to take the local transport back to Bali, as I had mostly been taking tourist buses. Getting from Sengigi to Mataram was fairly easy, changed at one point and was shepherded onto the next bemo by the driver. I had a look at a couple of temples in Mataram but they were far from spectacular. Next I headed along to the Lake Park which was also unimpressive, a muddy square of water. The central point of town seems to be the mall. Feeling in the mood for a burger I headed into McDonalds, where it was crawling with kids having a birthday party. McDonalds seems to have got in on localisation big time. Strange to watch somebody in there eating rice & egg with their fingers.

Leaving Mataram was a bit tougher, I headed down the bemo stops and after agreeing a normal price hopped aboard. The ferry is about 10 miles away, it took over 2 hours to get there! Most of sitting in the bemo, waiting for other passengers. Now and again he would drive up and down the road, trying to get more people before returning to the start and switching off the engine. I slipped my hat over my face and tried to go to sleep, but it was too hot inside. Eventually he crammed enough people in so we left, to pick up more people by the roadside. Anyway I got to the ferry 30 mins before it left, I though I would of got the previous ferry 90 minutes before but never mind. As soon as you reach the entrance of the terminal people are coming up trying to sell you tickets. I just ignored them (like the Police!) and walked up to the counter. People who sell the real tickets sit behind desks and wait for customers, not run about chasing people! Onto the ferry and yet more people selling everything and anything. Food, water, tshirts etc. Then 2 minutes before the boat leaves they all dash off. Obviously they don’t get their tickets checked at the entrance, must sneak past the security guard in the morning, or pay him. Anyway it was back to Padang Bai, I was going to push on to Kuta that evening but I couldn’t be bothered, so I spent another night in Padang Bai. The next day I went to get the bus, but a local festival was beginning so no buses for two days, hmmm. After a walk around the ferry area, I quickly arranged for a chartered car, only 5000 more than the bus. Sharing with one other person who was going to the airport. Picked up another couple of people and then it was back to Kuta. Except the driver dropped us off somewhere else, and we swapped to a bus. No extra money said the driver and then headed off. And then more waiting…

Finally got back to Kuta. Just as well the woman who charted the car wasn’t in a hurry to get to the airport! A few more days in Kuta before my flight back to Kuala Lumpur. I had timed it for 30 days in Indonesia, more than that and you need to apply for a visa beforehand, at least that seemed to be the rules, although when I flew in to Bali the customs guy asked me if I wanted 60 days, you just pay double. I had some more strolling around here, getting to know the area a bit better. In the South, you have Tuban and then heading North you get to Kuta beach proper and Legian, and if you continue you get to Seminyak, which is the super posh area. One of the road is simply a line of restaurants up here. Another houses a couple of art galleries for those wanting to purchase some original pieces. A far cry from the cheep and cheerful stalls in Kuta. One night I went out, popping into the bar for a happy hour drink. All was quiet until around 30 Norwegians descended, they had spent a couple of months here for school and had just finished there last exams, so they were in high spirits. Somewhere along the line I ended up drinking whisky with a bunch of locals, before heading onto Joe’s Place as one of the locals played there on Tuesday, not that it was a Tuesday or even open, but I met up with a couple of people I had seen the first time I was in Kuta. So I had a few more drinks before staggering home. Didn’t do much the next day, except stay clear of alcohol.

Food! A couple of Indonesian dishes that I’ve liked here are Gado Gado, a healthy mix of crispy vegetables and Nasi Campur a mix of vegetables and rice, maybe some sate if your lucky. These are very open to interpretation and so finding a good restaurant is needed. The same dish can be totally different from one place to another. I had Nasi Campur in Bedegul and it was a pale imitation of the meal I had in Kuta. The added sate with the dish was lovely. Not too spicy, either.

Gili Air

Leaving Padang Bai, we got the large ferry over to Lombok, taking around 4 hours. Then a bus up to the North arrived at Bangsal, where we got the public ferry over to Gili Air. The ferry being a long narrow boat capable of carrying about 20 people. No pier in at either end so you have to take off your shoes and clamber through the water onto the boat type while not dropping your bag in the water. Finally arriving at Gili Air we found some nice bungalows which had just been built by the French owner. Very nice and quiet place. Unusually quiet as the only means of transport around the island is horse and cart, no cars, no motorbikes here. The island is small enough to get around, a walk around the perimeter takes little over an hour. There is a small permanent local population of only 700 people living here, so when somebody says then know everybody they are not exaggerating.

Small restaurants dot the Eastern coast of the island. Most are simple places with small platforms with cushion for lounging on. Service is best described as “relaxed”. Most have a selection of fresh fish on display waiting to be grilled for hungry diners. If you look closley you can see that the fish have been caught by traditional spear fishing during the day.

A nice relaxing place for a few days. I often snorkled in the mornings, you could simply wade out to the coral from the beach. After talking to the guy renting the equipment he pointed me to a different site slightly further North up the coast. It was harder to get there as you either have to step on the dead coral shrapnel with your bare feet or stagger around with your flippers on. He saw me flapping around and then came out and showed my it is often easier to walk backwards with the flippers. Once there is enough water you can swim out further. He pointed out some different things, that I had noticed before most notable the clams. Swimming down to their mouths they would quickly closes up. Many different colors also. Another trick is spitting in your mask which makes it much easier to see and visibility is great here. A gentle current pushing you South along the coast so you don’t have to do much swimming. At one stage a huge dropoff occurs into the ocean, seems to me like standing at the edge of a cliff on a windy day! At the edges of the visibility some large fish swim in these deeper waters. During my time here I saw baracuda, angle fish, knife fish, clams, blue starfish, clown fish, mudskippers as well as countless unknown fish. Also got stung by some some small jellyfish, bit like a mosquito bite. Didn’t really notice until out of the water, but there are not posionous here so not a big deal.

In the afternoon, a spot of lunch at one of the beachside cafes and then spread out in the well balanced hamock on the veranda of the cottage and read my book. Maybe stop for a cool mango lassie, or drink a coconut. The days seem to drift by easily in places like this. Aah, life is tough :)

Monday, December 04, 2006


Continuing North I reached the coast again at the beach town of Lovina. A lot smaller than Kuta, it can easily be walked around. Consisting of lots of restuarants a few pubs, and a stretch of sand. Although the sand isn't as nice here, bit darker but okay. I rented a bike and cycled over to Sringraja the state capital. Much busier here lots of traffic when I joined up with the main road. I had taken the back roads to get there, which was hillier but quiter. I stopped off for a look around some statues. I think it was of the locals trying to repel the Dutch, not a great idea when you have a spear and they have a gun. A bit of Nasi Goreng for lunch, I dropped in at one of the small restaurants that line the road. I doubt they get many foreigners, but friendly enough and tasty food.

I came back to Lovina and then jumped back on the bike for an hour before sunset. I headed out the other direction and ended up cycling through a small village. Trundling along the dirt path between the coconut trees, trying to avoid angry dogs. See a few people who look suprised to see me.

Back into town and I had a look round the pubs, a couple of bands were playing. The first band wasn't that good, so I had a look elsewhere. The unmistakable riff of Smoke on the Water came thundering through the air, so I went in there. And for the rest of the night they played reggae, sheesh!

After Lovina I headed to the East Coast, the town of Padang Bai. A couple of Dutch people were travelling down there also. We had arranged it through the hotel for the bus to take us, but as there was only three people we ended up in a battered old jeep. It was a nice road winding along the coast for sections, before heading inland past the large volcano and on through the stepped land of the rice paddies, before emerging back beside the coast. I had a seat up front, so had a good view of the trip. Once in Padang Bai, I spent a couple of days there. The next day I headed over to Candid Dasa, a short bemo ride away. More of an upmarket resort area, with pricier restaurants. Not much beach here. The Lonely Planet says the barrier reefs were harvested in the 80's to provide lime for the concrete mix needed for the big new resorts. However without the barriers, erosion rapidly destroyed the coast. Within a few years, Candid Dasa was a beach resort with no beach. Some concrete barriers have been added to try and cope, but the damage had been done.

Back at Padang Bai, I had a beer with Paula and Frank. We were all going to the same place tomorrow. The Gili Islands.

Monday, November 27, 2006


After Ubud I continued North to Bedegul a small village which the bus pass through on the way to the North coast. I decided to spend a couple of nights, arriving around lunchtime on the first day I got of the bus at Strawberry Hill which looked like a nice guesthouse perched on the hills with extensive views across Bali. Only one problem, it was closed for renovation. Oh well, setting out on the road, about 1km with the backpack into town proper up and over the peak of the hill. Arriving sweatily into the main area I had another couple of choices and so settled in to have a look about. A couple of kilometres away lies Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a Hindu Buddhist temple built on the edge of the lake. I jokingly crouched down and asked for “Anak” (Child) at the ticket office and the guy smiled and let me in for half-price. Though I noticed I didn’t actually get a ticket and the money went straight in his pocket, still they would be closing soon. The temple itself has a couple of small buildings with Buddhist style layered roof stacked on top of one another. Always an odd number of levels. In the pleasant gardens surronding the temple I came across a strange statue of a pig looking a bit out of place.

The next day the plan was to rise early and have a go at climbing the mountain beside the lake, but… Well I never was a morning person but I set out after breakfast (Yes, before lunch!) After skirting round the lakeside I passed the caves as mentioned in the guidebook and then that’s where problems started. The trail got fainter and fainter, merging into the beach, and then the beach merged into the forest, and soon there was nowhere left to go. I retraced my steps but couldn’t find a clear trail. Oh well I gave up, and never even got above lake-level! A guide has offered his services the day before but he wanted $30. Maybe it is a bring-your-own-machette-to-hack-your-way-through-the-jungle trek, rather than a clear path up that I anticipated. So I fell back on a hastily created plan B, I would take a bemo over to the next town and have a look about there. After a while I was bouncing along to Pancasari. However, it turned out to a tiny place no bigger than the village I was staying. There was a rather dirty looking market, a school and the bus stop. As well as a few houses and the omnipresent mobile phone shop. So I just strolled back into town, stopping off for a tasty strawberry milkshake as the area is the strawberry capital of Bali.

Off for some dinner in a an empty restaurant. I opted for some fish from the freshwater lake, ended up with a plate of gourami. These places here cater for the day trade, where people pass by on their way to somehwere else. Maybe a bus will stop and everybody will wolf down lunch before hopping back on the bus and zooming off. Rather strange when everybody else leaves making it feel a bit of a ghost town. Sitting at table for 12 people, and I seemed to be the only tourist in town. Still at least there was a bar tucked away in the corner of the market, but this caters only for lunchtime drinkers, as it was shut before sunset, not much of pub with hours like that! A quiet night then and then next day it was North again to the coastal town of Lovina.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Arriving at Ubud I was met by some people touting business as I hadn’t planned anywhere to stay, I went along with one guy who had a homestay. Ubud is like a conglomeration of seven small villages. Still a small fairly quiet place, especially after Kuta. I headed down to Monkey Forest for a stroll along past the snatching monkeys. Somebody had their bottle of water nicked. Some people were feeding them bananas, which were quickly munched down. Some just look kinda bored. Among the shaded trees is a large real-size sculpture of two komodo dragons, you wouldn’t want to meet the real thing on a dark night, they are huge! One of the locals was telling me they have a poisonous bite, if bitten you have ten minutes to live! Not sure where legend meets fact here.

The owner of the guesthouse was one of the singers of the Kecak dance at night which I went along to see. Set in a small temple it plays out a story from the Mahabharata. Lots of singing and some dancing, some strange costumes, more chanting. A bad guy appeared looking strangely like the Grinch. Then after the story, a man did some firewalking, well sort of. More like kicking the fire apart! The fire was started with some coconut husks liberally doused in petrol and left to burn down. Then the guy came out riding a wooden horse, like a witch rides a broom. Strangely reminiscent of the Muslim ceremony I saw in Singapore, except this was Hindu. Seems to be in a trance, as at the end a couple of people rugby tackled him off the horse, and he flopped down on the ground sweating.

The next day I took a long walk between some of the villages in the outskirts of Ubud. Very nice scenery of green forest and lush paddy fields, terraced over the hills. I reached a small temple where a carved wall depicts Ganesh and some of his mates. An old lady quickly flicked water on me and then hand out for the 1000 rupiah for the blessing. Huh, what? Oh well I gave her the money and she let me take some photos and then she was all smiles. I clambered out the end of the temple and along a small stream and emerged in a rice terrace, I ascended up the ridges and then I came back to the road. Not quite the way I planned to continue but at least I was back on track for my next stop Elephant Cave. Not much of a cave, it must have been a fairly small elephant as the cave wasn’t that big! I had a chat with one of the people in the temple, she was learning Japanese so she could be a tour guide, and of course English too. Back on the road I nipped into a small museum where the curator/security guard showed me round as I was the only visitor. Of course a small donation was required at the end! But no entrance fee, so I just gave him a little and he seemed happy enough. Not that much to see here, a few archeological exhibits with some sarcophagus for the formerly important people.

Another day and it was off for nosy round the new botanical gardens. After a long walk I eventually reached it, seemed a lot further than the <2 km I had read. Anyway I went to the ticket office and it said it seemed expensive at 50,000 and instantly I got special price, out with the 40% discount stamp. Prices do seem very variable here, although sometime they have a take it or leave attitude, other times they are happy to barter. Like the geezers on the beach selling necklaces, pendants, watches, etc have their “sunset price” for the end of the day! Anyway I had a stroll round the gardens which were nicely set out although the tropical section had been closed due to flooding. Spotted a strange long-toed lizard with a yellow flash along the side. Eventually I managed to get my photo of it, before it disappeared into the undergrowth. After strolling around the gardens I again set out on foot up past a small village and round to the place where the herons sleep. I asked somebody at the gardens about it and they didn’t think there was that many birds, but they were wrong, hundreds if not thousands crowded the trees. Very distinctive with there white body and red spiky feathered head, like Punk birds with red mohicans!
Back into town, and after working up a thirst birdwatching it seemed like a good chance to try the Bali Hai beer. A bit on the smooth frothy side, I’ll stick to the Bintang which is crisper, yes I’m a lager connoisseur!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


And so it was off across the Equator for the first time, no doubt I’m supposed to be tarred and feathered and hung overboard for Trident to devour should he wish, but I skipped this ritual by taking the plane. Arriving at Bali, Kuta is just a short taxi ride away. I got dropped off at the edge of Poppies 1, the small narrow lanes here are known as gangs. They are a bit small for cars to pass along mostly, although plenty do try. I navigated my way sucessfully to my guesthouse of choice (The Oberoi was full!), a minor miracle that I didn’t get lost. That however was not to last long, on the next days exploration I was lost quite a few times. Around here there are lots of small restaurants known as warungs, lots of tourists shops selling the usual clatter and lots of guesthouses. If you head the right way you will pop out at Kuta beach, a long curve of decent sands, with decent waves. Of course Bali is surfing land, people traipsing about with their boards talking about “barreling through tubes”, yeah like totally dude!

As you walk around Bali you will get assailed with cries of “Transport!”, guys with motorbikes or taxis looking to take you for a ride. If you don’t get used to ignoring them then half the your trip will be spent saying “No Thanks”. Although Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, Bali itself is actually Hindu. Or a slight variation on traditonal Hinduism as they are allowed to eat beef. Good for steaks, bad for cows. Dotted around the ground all over Bali are offerings to the various Gods. These are small squares of banana leaf, colourfully filled with flowers, paper, maybe some fruit or rice and generally topped off with a Ritz biscuit! Back down on the beach a bit further north of Kuta at Seminyak, I encountered a ceremony, where people were decked in fancy clothes and had large parasols. I didn’t really know what was going on looked like some sort of ritual. They threw some food and a bird into the waves, and then turned around and left. The bird got thrown about a bit in the waves, but eventually made it back to calmer waters, looking somewhat worse for wear. One guy plucked it up from the waves and placed it on dry land, but it just keeled over backwards. Nobody else seemed interested in the fate of the bird, so it must of served its purpose.

As th suns drops down out the sky, Kuta beach has the perfect view for sunsets. The surfers are still out there, not much daylight left. A few locals have grouped together for an energitic game of volleyball. Further south, the beach is lined with makeshift football fields as the guys scamper around in the sand chasing a round ball of air. No jumpers for goalposts here, a couple of sticks or two mounds of wet sand will do.

I had chatted to a couple of people at lunchtime, a Swiss woman and her Balinese boyfriend who owns a bar, so I met back up at nightime. There was a small band playing some live music, who were pretty good. A few more people turned up and we headed out to some of the clubs. No cover charge here so people straggle from one club to another until one of the clubs gets busy. Anyway by the time I made it back I was near enough supposed to be getting up for my bus to Ubud the next day. Suffice to say I slept in a bit, still it was a good night and I managed to get the ticket changed so the day after I did head off to Ubud.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wandering Around....

After Hangzhou I got a cheap flight down to Guangzhou staying again on Shaiman Island. It is so much easier finding your guesthouse when you’ve been there before! And now just a few short months later they had built a handy bridge over the highway. A few nice restaurants dot the island, perfect place for a slow lunch. Next a short train journey brought me back to Hong Kong again staying in the same place, the somewhat crumbling and optimistically named Mirador Mansions. From the outside of the building the surface is pitted with air-conditioning units, cheerily dripping water on unsuspecting pedestrians far below. A huge mixing pot of cultures is in evidence just by the way people dress. From saris to burkhas to suits and back, you’ll see it here.

I took a stroll around snapping pictures, coming across some sort of demonstration that had brought out the local TV crew. Although I doubt it was adhoc as small area was tagged as the demonstration area. The only other bit of English writing said “Legislation Now!”, so I’ve no idea what it was about. The Hong Kong media must be a lot freer than the mainland Chinese media. Down at the ferry there is people handing out leaflets about how practioners of a religious group, Falun Gong, are persecuted. According to them prisoners are being used as organ donors. Hospitals will arrange for liver transplants from freshly executed prisoners. More .here.

Onto Macau, which has a couple of fancy new expensive casinos added since last time I was here! Reports indicate it is expected to overtake the Las Vegas strip profit, and become the world’s premiere gambling spot. Did I mention the new six star hotel, they were fully booked so I had to stay elsewhere :) Oh yeah, one of the casinos is underwater…. strange place Macau. I opted for a rather delicious dinner in a nearby restaurant of which Macau has many. It was from here I flew over to Bangkok and into the fancy new airport. For some reason the Air Asia flight were already flying into Suavbhumi airport a day before the official opening. As they were only a handful of flights it was very quiet, allowing me to change my money and get onward transport without too much a headache.

A short stay in Bangkok, the most memorable event being sipping a beer on the 83rd floor of the Baiyoke Tower. Interesting to try and work out the layout of a big city from up in the sky. Back down on ground level a stroll around Khao San road is always interesting the ideal people watching road! Dotted around are people getting their hair braided, just browsing through the stalls, or sitting in a roadside café watching people watching the people go by. Good place to pick up some new books as well, I offloaded my LP China and bought a couple of novels. Food ranges from simple food on a skewer to the ubiquitous rice with something/anything dishes. I spotted a “British Café” which had fish and chips, but it didn’t really taste like home, where’s the grease??

I had to decide to nip back to Chiang Mai and pop into the dentist as they had advised that I need a filling, but I was flying to China the next day. I had one look at the dentists in China and decided it could wait. They are like barbershops where you are sat in a chair beside the window and then your teeth are all pulled out because of a verbal misunderstanding. At least that’s what I imagine would happen. I did go into one place but stumped them by asking if anyone speaks English.

So back in Chiang Mai but the next free time is not for ten days, and so off again. This time a winding bus ride through the hills to the valley hangout of Pai. A cluster of guesthouse, cafes and bars set pretty much in the middle of nowhere. A few long timers hiding out here, not surprising as you can get a house in beautiful surroundings for 4000baht/month. T-Shirt vendors sell shirts proclaiming “I did nothing in Pai” and yes it is a relaxing place, kick back read a book, listen to some music at night.

Quite lively on Friday with a few band playing on a stage in the main street. Some “imaginative” ska dancing was seen. Winner of the best dancer goes to the guy with the mullet, as he was also making the singer laugh when burning down the dancefloor. In contrast Saturday seemed dead, didn’t seem to be anything happening, maybe it was too early in the night, maybe it was Sunday? Easy place to lose track of the days! Anyway I decided to rent a bike and the weather gods decided to throw a bucket of rain on my head. I pushed on to Pai Canyon regardless. A curious natural phenomenon where a tiny ridge pathway is left while the surrounding ground has been eroded into a sheer drop. Only about 1/2m wide at some points, you should watch your balance if you don’t want to die! After surviving that I jumped back on the bike and past a World War II bridge built here. The idea being to push Japanese troops up from Bangkok to Burma. Over the river I looked about for a place to get a drink. I asked a Thai restaurant having a somewhat confused conversation. I thought they had coffee, but they were saying there is a café around the corner. I found this Café Del Doi, nice views over the Pai River here. After a refreshing grape juice back on the bike and past a handful of elephant camps, and just beating more rain to head back into Pai town proper.

I jumped on the bus onwards to Mae Hong Son, a small town of only 7000 people, but curiously enough with its one airport. A fact very apparent when I headed up to the temple on the hill and had a look out over the town. The airport runway strip appears slap bang in the middle of town! Trekking is probably the most popular activity out this way, but I just bought new shoes and have blisters breaking them in. Cue “Aaaaaw” from the audience. I thought I might take a bus or songthaew out to Fish Cave to have a look around, but after talking to the guesthouse staff it seemed that was ruled out. I would be able to get there, I just wouldn’t get any transport back! Oh well, at least I was given a free bottle of Lychee Wine, which taste as good as you would imagine. Some more live music here, although more traditional Thai music than most in Pai. There is a carnival in town at the moment bringing all the excitement with it. The most popular thing has to be bingo, closely followed by a game of pop the balloons with the darts and win a cuddly toy. Although it was mostly traditional music, it did lapse into reggae for a few songs, which was a bit unexpected. Shabba!

Heading back to the dentist in Chiang Mai, I broke the journey with another couple of days at Pai again. On the bus I met a young English bloke, Rob, who had been teaching English in a Karen village. The Karen are one of the best known hill tribe as some of the tribes wear the golden neck bracelets which depresses the collar bone giving the appearance of a long neck, hence the long-neck Karen tours. Although where Rob was teaching they didn’t have this practice. Having been on in the sticks for a couple of months, he was salvating at the wide choice of Western food in Pai. I think he lived of fish for two months. After a satisfying dinner, I had the exotic pork chops, we headed out to the edge of town to a bar called BeBop. But as there was a power cut nothing was happening, no music. Still at least you could see the Milky Way!

After the dentist in Chiang Mai I flew down to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I organised my plans for the rest of the year. One of the goods things about KL is the food and the fact I can read the menu (mostly)! Lots of Malaysian/Indian food is available for reasonable prices. Although I couldn’t find a thali, I settled for a Nasi Daging (spicy beef with rice) with a dosa (big crepe with a couple of dipping sauces). A simple breakfast if Roti Canai, flatbread with sauce and Milo Ais (Iced Chocolate Milkshake) Of course I had to have Ayam Goreng (Fried Chicken) always seems delicious in Malaysia. Another tasty dish was Ikan Bakar (Grilled Fish), stringray cooked on a hotplate. The fish was slitted and covered in salt, and then the sauce was rubbed in before being cooked on a hotplate with oil. Also very tasty, although the sidedish of sauce was too spicy for me. A stroll around, refreshed the memories, although I still got lost. Mostly in Times Square, a massive 10-13 level shopping mall, with 5 basements judging from the lift buttons (could be the carpark?) Next stop was a bus journey back up to the Spice Island, Penang. Well except all the buses were full, so I jumped on a bus heading North to the Cameron Highlands for a quick look about. Nice enough place, but probably better to stay outside the town in the natural surroundings, but that would entail an expensive resort! I took a stroll through the woods on a trail, heading up to the top of the hill and rising above was the watchtower. Good views from the top across the rolling hills, in the distance some rain coming in, back to the hotel! Next day I got the slow bus to Penang, going along down these winding roads takes hours

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


After a couple of hours on the train it was off to Hangzhou, renowned for its natural beauty. Well actual most of the scenery is centered around an artificial lake, so maybe not quite so natural, but still a nice place. Apparently one of the top places to live in China. Around the imaginatively named West Lake, inspiration for many Chinese painters and poets, there are a large number of cafes and restaurants many shaded by drooping trees. I suspect lots of money was spent in landscaping around here. Although most people outside of China probably have never heard of it, it has more people than the whole of Scotland (not unusual for Chinese cities!).

A swanky new shopping centre has just been opening promoting an on the up feel to the city, it seems to be a popular place to teach English, but more importantly it is THE place to go if you want to buy a pair of scissors, yep not just famed for it’s legendary West Lake it is also China’s number one place to stock up on quality scissor equipment! This was evident on a visit to the new museum, not quite sure if it is officialy opened as there was no ticket officer so no charge, extremely unusual for China, where most parks have an admission fee. A dazzling array of scissorial equipment was here in evidence, well okay there was a cabinet displaying a variety of scissors, i.e. different sizes. Round the corner lay a large collection of stuffed animals, showing the wildlife around Hangzhou.

Back outside some house boats cruise gently through the lake staying clear of the splattering of lillies. On the dry ground some sculptures lurk in amongst the park gardens. One sculpture however is in the lake, a large cow. Moo! Some work going on in the park with new sculptures, maybe for the Olympics. One other sculpture sits on the lake, looks like the God of Sea, but only two spikes on his trident/bident. In a noiser corner of the park, the crowds of old men gather for there is card games to be played, domino matches to win. In addition a few musicians scratch out their tunes, some better than others. Interesting to see the music sheets, with the tab-like notation not entirely sure if/how rythmn is notated, maybe it’s all in the interpration.


Arriving in Shanghai the weather had got wet, it had decided to rain… and rain. Undeterred by mere rain clouds I set out to have a look around. The guesthouse seemed to be basically the top floor of an old folk’s home, every time you go down the stairs the same old Chinese people are sitting in chairs, dreaming. Being a bit of a distance away from the main downtown area meant figuring out the buses, always a challenge in a foreign country. At least the bus stop was right outside the guesthouse. The main bus route leads down one big road to the riverside. Only trouble with this is all the bus stops are called Yannan Road. I just stayed on the crowded bus until the end of the line which ends at the Bund, Shanghai’s famous historical district. Lots of European architecture, home primarily to banks & high fashion stores now. Across the river stands a giant tower, this can be reached by taking the tourist tunnel underground. Not quite sure who come up with this strange ride. You hop on a small four-person train carriage and it rolls away down the tunnel as the psychedelic light show begins. On through more lights and “meteor showers” and waving air-people before reaching the other side. All very odd.

Over the river there are some giant shopping malls and more rain! I headed into a small museum which had some wildlife exhibits, but in a very Chinese way. The stuffed turtle was covered in coins and notes, as was the crocodile. Money thrown in by visitors hoping for luck. I noticed another turtle with coins on its back and notes covering the floor, I was a bit surprised to see that it was alive! At least it has its shell to protect itself from the coins being thrown onto it.

Another day I headed off to the art museum which was really rather good. There was a large cultural festival being thrown around this time so lots of exhibits. Some of them were somewhat curious, such as the room filled with toy JCB’s whirring about. Or the multimedia area where a camera is placed above a table and then a processed image is projected back onto the table. This allows a rather strange display where it looks like a river of colour flowing across the table, controlled by the placement of the cups and saucers, or even a wave of the hand which leave a wake or ripple of light. Mmm, hard to explain! Later at night I went for a drink, I got a glass of beer and a 3quid+ bill, “Happy Hour” the waitress explained, yikes! Turned out it was 2 for 1 as another one arrived when the first finished, so not so bad. I saw a poster for the Scottish Woman’s Cricket Team, I wonder what was greater the number of players or the number of spectators? Well anyway I managed to make it out without being Shanghaied<

Monday, September 25, 2006


First stop, the largest public square in the world, Tiananmen Square, full of milling crowds. At the south end sits the Front Gate however the walls are now gone and the gate is fenced off. Heading onwards Mao’s Mausoleum draws flocks of Chinese tourists as does the Gate of Heavenly Peace where a portrait of Chairman Mao resides below which tourists pose for photos. Around the park stony faced policemen and soldiers keep things in order, standing beside socialist statues. About the only thing allowed seems to be kites, some are large, others are strung together to create a line of twenty or so small kites.

Continuing North you get to Forbidden City, a million square metres and 999 rooms, although not all opened to the public. The Forbidden City is actual a museum, hosting all sorts of exhibits of how life was for the Emperors and friends. Seems like they basically stayed walled up in the centre of Beijing unless they really had to go out, in which case get the sedan chair. Maybe they spent their days drinking tea beside the rockeries in the garden.

I headed off to see the Chinese acrobatics at night. They were excellent! All sorts of displays from spinning plates to somersaults. People flicking five bowls through the air from one foot onto their heads, while riding a unicycle! There was one bendy gymnast doing impossible things. If you can do this you might want to join the Chinese acrobatics.

1) Lie on your back and do a full length wise 360 revolution, like a slow roly-poly.

Okay, now point all limbs up and repeat with a wineglass (or nine) on the palms of your hands, base of your feet and on your forehead. Yes, they always have to face the ceiling as you rotate. You would bet your mortgage it couldn’t be done, sounds impossible right? But somehow it was done!

Next day it was off for a stroll along a few of the old shops. Some guy was trying to sell me tiny shoes “Ming Dynasty!!”, yeah sure. A few old posters being sold with translations such as “You workers are going good.”. As well as the usual chop shops where you can get your named carved on a stamp, of course they convert your name into Chinese and then you come back later and pick it up. They probably give you a stamp that says “Duty Paid” or “Made In China” and claim it is your name!

After that it was down to The Temple of Heaven park, a pot pourri of all sorts of activities going on here. From people practising acrobatics to playing tennis, and everything inbetween such as hacksack, dominoes, bat & ball, selling rolexs, Chinese checkers, ballroom dancing or playing cards, it was all going on. I demonstated my acrobatic atheletism by catching hoops on my head! I had been watching these a handful of people practising with a soft aeroba/hollow frisbee throwing and then jumping up and catching round their necks. Then one guy motioned me to join them, actually pretty easy as the skill is more in the throwing than the catching, just duck your head a little at the right point.

Speaking of ducks, that night I headed to Quanjude Restaurant for the famous Beijing Duck or Peking Duck as it’s still better known. Yummy! It was delicious. Didn’t get a whole lot of meat off half a duck, but it was good quality, although I left the head/brains.
Just for comparative purposes I tried it somewhere else again whilst in Beijing, more meat but not quite as nice.

Next day I had a stroll through the commerical district where modern Beijing is found. Shopping malls line the pedestrianised area, as the tills ring out. In contrast to this the old alleyways (called hutongs) are a step back in time. People live, work and shop in these narrow lanes. At the entrance rickshaw drivers holler “Hutong! Hutong!” trying to entice lazy tourists to hop on for a tour, but these are perfect streets for walking.

For some food I headed off to Xuan Wang Home Cooking restaurant where I had some tasty sweet & sour cucumber, a dish for all those cucumber naysayers! Along with this deep fried spare ribs with pepper salt, another very tasty dish. Although a bit too much fat for my tastes. Then it was off to the Summer Palace a large park complex with the old buildings inside. This took quite a while to stroll around!

I went along to the Beijing Opera. This was a performance aimed at tourists, so they had subtitles broadcasted on a big screen throughout the show. Although sometimes the English was a bit wonky, it started with “I have left the nunnery in a hurry!”. A girl runs away to find her boyfriend, she is helped by an old boatman. It was quite clever the way the old boatman and the girl moved around as if in a boat. There was a couple of other stories and even some gymnastics thrown in as people somersaulted through the air.

“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man” – Mao Zedong.
With that thought in mind it was up early(ish) the next morning to jump on the bus to Badaling where a portion of the Great Wall resides. It was actually fairly tough going, it was a lot steeper than I imagined it would be, but there was some handrails. Great view across the countryside where the wall snakes along the mountain ridges off into the distance. Whilst quite touristy it wasn’t as bad as the Lonely Planet suggests, although I didn’t go on the weekend. Plenty of space to move about, and I was expecting vendors selling stuff anyway. Some people cheat and take the cable car up, strangely enough there was a camel lurking on a section of the wall. I think he was just there for tourists to jump on and get there picture taken though. After knackering myself out, it was back to Beijing where I decided to stay for the Beijing Pop Festival.

The pop festival was held in Chaoyang park in the east of the city. A two day festival where a few Western bands were playing. It was certainly a bit different from the festivals in Britain. For a start there was no beer! A huge police presence kept things under control. The area in front of the stage was cordoned off for around 500 seats. The standing area was a 100m back from the stage. In the centre, from front to back, of the standing area police sat every 5m, no people were allowed to stand there. Every hour or two they would stand up and march off as new police came on duty. I did see one Westerner getting carted off with two policemen a limb, legs over head. He was taken off to a policevan with blacked out windows. The music was okay although the headliners on the first night gave the impression of wanting to be elsewhere. Not much crowd feedback, fairly quiet and subdued. The only time things got going really was with big haired 80’s spandex rocker Sebastian Bach (didn’t he die in the 18th century?) took the stage! The Chinese seemed to know his songs and sang along. After a bit of pushing at the front, extra police were quickly drafted in to sort out the barriers. Supergrass finished off the event and within 5 minutes, they annoucement that the festival has finished please disperse came over the tannoys and so I headed for Shanghai.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


I got a hotel opposite the train station in Datong, they didn't speak much English. Turned out I don't get a key for my room, I have to fetch the service person to open the door for me, strange. And I had to pay what I thought was a key deposit! (Still I got it back when I checked out)

I headed downtown to have a look at the nine dragon screen. Which is a screen with nine dragons on it (What would you do without me??). It's 45m long and apparently the oldest glazed dragon wall in China. At least that's how it's advertised. As that took all of about 5 minutes to see, I headed off for some food. Californian Beef Noodles from Mr. Lee was the dish of the day. Seems a bit strange for an American to be selling noodles to the Chinese, no? Or maybe it is the beef that is from California, anyway not nearly as good as Pingyao beef. Although not that far from Beijing the locals don't seem too used to tourists. When I was walking about town, you would often hear "Hello!?"

The next day a visit to the Hanging Monastery. A monastery perched on the side of a mountain. The reaon for this was that the local people were having troubles with floods and so put the monastery 100m above the river safe from harm. Now after the 1500 years of silt it sits 50m above ground. The river had now been dammed. Due to it's location, it is protected from the wind at the sides and rains from above and most sun (a mountain opposite blocks the light for all but 2 hours a day). This had allowed the wood to survive for such a long time, which is just as well given that we were traipsing round the narrow passageways. Inside many of the buddhas were headless having been hacked off by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The fingers were cut off the main ones, the guide said the guards were too scared to chop off the head of the main buddhas.

Next it was off to Yungang caves. The caves are reputed to hold over 50,000 buddhist statues! The main caves are 5-20, these are in the best conditions and hold the largest buddhas. Buddhas everywhere! Some big, some small, some painted, some bare. The big buddhas were carved from the rock, a small tunnel is created 20m above ground level and then the process of carving begins downwards. Dragging the dirt back out the entrance tunnel, the buddha emerges from the rock and finally the main entrance is carved away creating the cave.


Back in the good old days of the Ming and Qing dynasty this was a boom town establishing China's first bank. After the dynasty collapsed Pingyao remained pretty much unchanged and still has the old city wall round the centre. In 1997 Pingyao was listed as a Unesco World Hertiage Site.

I bought the ticket which allows you in to see most of the sights. The trick is finding them, as they are all listed in Chinese and you don;t get a map. Many old banks and their courtyards. Some job descriptions on the walls such as eyeing the colour of the silver. Stopping off at the main museum to have a look around. The exhbits range from a prison complete with brick bed and wooden pillow, to torture equipment and stocks. A strange wooden horse with a bed nails on its back confirms my intention to stay on the good side of the Chinese.

For some reasons lots of fire fighting equipement everywhere from buckets and spades to small bags of sands, they used to make sure a well had heated water in the winter in case of fire, no use trying to dip a bucket into a frozen well. Still most of the buildings are brick. Rather wet the next day and it just rained all day. I headed out for a quick look about and decided to pop back at 15.30 for a play. After getting soaked I found out the play wasn't on as it was supposed to be outdoors. Bit of a non-event.

I tried the Pingyao beef which is famous throughout China as being yummy and it is!
Very tender served up with potato a filling meal but excellent. So good I had the same next day as well. Set off the next morning on a bike to a temple a short distance outside town with a Canadian guy. Ended up pedalling through mud due to the amount of rain yesterday some of Pingyao was flooded, and where it wasn't muddy it was dusty. Not allowed any photos in the halls of the temple, which was a shame as the Canadian had brought a backpack full of photgraphic equipment. Inside was some strange carvings, reminded me of a backdrop for a play, with the mutiple levels of the carvings.

In the afternoon I headed up onto the city walls and took the 6km walk round the perimeter. Take some photos of rooftops and I even snapped a picture of the Ready-Brek pigeon. Pingyao is a bit more shambolic than most of the cities in China, more rubble and bricks holding down the roofs.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


** Due to my inability to read Chinese I clicked on the wrong button last time and didn't publish my posts, just noticed. So FOUR(4!) new posts for ya'll. This one being my hundredth post, I await a telegram from the Queen!

Arriving in Xian, nobody else seems to getting off the train which continued all the way to Shanghai. But at least I did get off at the right station. Actually on the Chinese trains you swap your ticket for a bit of plastic with your bed number and then 30-60 mins before the stop the conductor swaps your plastic back for your ticket (which you need to get out the station!). Well at least that's how it has worked so far.

My guesthouse was quite near the station, I just needed to turn right (or was it left) and walk along the road for 10 minutes. And then zonk out, never seem to sleep well on the trains. Anyhows, Xian is a large city with over six and half million residents, most of them milling around the train station. Not helping matters is the fact that there are several bus stations abutting onto this area. Large city walls surround the centre where the large bell tower sits in a traffic roundabout. A modern city it is filled with retail shops, shopping malls and lots of hairdressers for some reason. This being China, you don't just get a shop filled with shoes you get a street filled with shops filled with shoes, great if your Imelda Marcos. In the streets around there are some food stalls serving up chicken feet, pigs intestines and other such delicacies. I opted for a chicken dumpling, while it was certainly was a dumpling not sure if it was chicken (maybe sometime better not to know)

Next day I checked my guidebook, the 306 bus heads off to the Army of the Terracotta Warriors. Outside I had a brain freeze and jump on the 608 bus. Unsurprisingly I didn't make it to the Terracotta Warriors, but ended up with a tour of Xian Industrial Estate instead, ending at the bus washing area. By the time I make it back and re-check my guidebook half the day has gone, oh well there is always tomorrow.

Next day I checked my guidebook, the 306 bus heads off to the Army of the Terracotta Warriors. Outside I jump on the 306 bus, well not quite jump as there is a sizable queue of people (mostly tourists, hence the queue instead of a scrum). Arriving at the vast grounds, people jump off buses into electric carts to be taken up to the entrance. Or you could walk! I was mildly surprised to see that the price was still 90yuan, probably about the only tourist attraction that hasn't suffered a price hike, since my guidebook was written (way back in 2005)

Qin Shi Huang might have pegged it back in 210B.C. but his ego lives on. The Terracotta Army guards his tomb, and chances are, he may have been a bit of a meglomaniac. He did however unite China and standardise the currency and writing.

Inside you enter into Pit 1 and it is massive, football stadium sized, complete with football sized crowds! 230 metres by 62 metres, which by quick mental calculation (ahem) is 14,260 square metres. First discovered in 1974, only 4000 square metres have actually been excavated. So far 2000 warriors have been discovered, it is likely to hold another 4000! Originally all the warriors held bronze weapons such as crossbows, spears, axes, swords, halberds etc. Apparently more than 10,000 pieces have been recovered but are not on display. The warriors are lined up in battle formation, each crafted with unique facial features. Some horses are found at the rear of the pit wooden chariots were originally buried alongside. A bronze chariot has been recovered and is on display at the museum, alongside some impressive individual warriors and a fat guy who was the commander!

Pit 2 and 3 are much smaller, not nearly as much to see as Pit 1, although there is thought to be another one thousand warriors in Pit 2. Full excavation of the pits could take decades (That is what happens when you dig with a toothbrush!).

Back in Xian I had a gander at Big Goose Pagoda? (b-doom tisssshh!)
Set in pleasant garden surroundings, there was a few halls with some artwork to see. In the shop a wolf-headed man statue sticks it tongue out at you while menancingly holding a couple of sticks, strange. Also a black chicken roamed the garden! Did you know that even its bones are black? Well, now you do!


If you can catch a glimpse through the crowds, through the fingerprinted glass and through the incubator, you may see what looks like a giant rat, but in fact it is a baby panda. Well at least that what the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base are claiming, and who can blame them after all pandas are big business. Want to rent one for your zoo? You'd better pony up a million bucks per YEAR. What you're not a member of our Panda renting club? No problem, fill out the application form and enclose a cheque for $600,000 and you can begin to rent out pandas immediately!

Still they do look cute & cuddly and a little bit daft. After traipsing through the park for a bit we came across one who was out and about in the early morning. Mind you for ten minutes he sat with his back to the visitors, eventually turning round for the whizz flash of the cameras. A couple more came out, rolled around, ate some bamboo, and went back to sleep.

In another bit of the park, a red panda lurked hiding behind the branches. Sulking at all the attention his famous black and white cousins get, while he has to sit here alone, with barely a camera click to keep him company. Back in the parking lot a maze of panda shops selling pandas of all shapes and sizes (but not colour!). Eek, I just want a coke!

Back in Chengdu my main landmark for orientation was a huge seven storeyed ship-shapped club. Down at the riverside park, old people were doing that old classic exercise of walking around backwards, which helps what??

Next day it was off to Leshan. Here there is a whole lotta buddhas and assorted other statues and carvings. A large buddha, dwarfing tourists appeared round the corner, but that wasn't even the Giant Buddha. Some smaller but still large carvings surrounded the stairs. Padlocks sprouting out the handrail for some reason, must be for blessings or luck I'm guessing. Inside the hall an impressive statue of Guanyin is carved into the walls, while not quite having one thousands hands, probably has more than a thousands fingers! After a bit more of a walk the Giant Buddha appeared. A supersized whopper of a Buddha. Officialy the World's largest standing Buddha at 71m, he's pretty damn big! Unfortunately he's also very popular, meaning the winding queue down to his toes was over two hours, longer than I cared to wait to see some giant toes. I had a look about the rest of the park, the other interesting sight was the hall of arhats at the Wuyou Temple. An arhat being a Chinese celestial being, these were modelled clay and painted each with unique posture and expression. Claimed to be 1000 of them, but I reckoned closer to 500. Still impressive though, but like a few places in China, no photos allowed :(

As I got back in Chengdu walked past an outdoor pub with a giant cinema screen showing Braveheart! Then there was a woman doing some crazy tea pouring, a long stemmed pot is twirled around the body and then poured into cups. Doing tricks like pouring with the spout on the knee, or over the back. Probably cold by the time they pour in it your cup!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Trekking TLG

I arrived at the bus stop in the morning hoping to leap on a Zhongdian bound bus. Accordingly to the guide book there were around 11 buses a day heading up. Turned out to be 2. The next one was not for 4 hours. Some other people were in the same situation and we managed to haggle a mini-bus for a decent price. So off we went. Arriving after a couple of hours, me and Gene decided to stop for a bite to eat, while the other two were eager to set off immediately and had a pack lunch stowed in their packs. Gene is originally from America, but spent three years in Africa and now six years in South Korea teaching English.

TLG is better known as Tiger Leaping Gorge (by people who don't have to type out blog entries). Somewhere deep in the Tibetan plateau begins the Yangzi River, the third longest river in the world. It winds its way down through and across China all the way to Shanghai, 6300 km away. Here the Yangzi is squeezed between Haba Mountain and Jade Snow Dragon Mountain, creating the gorge where a tiger is said to have leapt across, hence the odd name.

Heading out from the lunch spot, we soon wondered if we were going the right way, as a large track veered off to the left, but with no signposts either way we decided on keeping straight. The high trail starts and at the first major bend, we reach a delta where we again get confused, shouldn't we be on the other side?? Nope, it turns out we are going round the corner, where we are greeted by the first sight of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain or Yulong Xueshan, which tops out at an impressive 5,500m. Continuing on we reached the 26 bends which is basically a big zig-zagging climb to the highest point in the trek. Sweatily we reach the summit as pose for the obligatory photograph with the mountains in the backdrop. A slight haze, desaturates the colour in the background and it looks like I've been cut and pasted into the photograph, but I really did make it up there honest!
It will hard to do justice to the spectacular scenery, or the steepness of the gorge in places, you just can't replicate that in a photograph.

About a couple of hours after the summit we dropped in to a guesthouse, where facilities were basic, but the food was pretty good! Tasty baba bread with chives. Here it has no yeast, served as a flat bread and better than it's doughy cousin served in Lijiang the later tasting like pizza base. The toilet is a trench, with mountain scenery. i.e. no door, the Chinese are not big on privacy!

The next day start early and soon underway, through small villages clinging to the mountainside, with the famous Chinese terraces farming style in evidence in patches. Sure footed mountain goats chew plants in perilous footholds. Onwards crossing over a waterfall, past noisy cicadas and more great scenery. Descending down the high path meets the low road. Arriving fairly early, Gene and I split, he wants to get the bus back to Lijiang, and I continue the trek. Pushing on is easy enough, just walking along the road rather than a path. I reach the ferry point and can see across the path as it zig-zags down the mountainside. I clamber down for an hour eventually reaching the ferry point, but there is no ferry! I climbed back up and make a choice, I can push on to the old ferry (and hope it is running) or head back to one of the guesthouses, about an hour walk back the way. I do the sensible thing and head back to spend a night in the guesthouse. Barely any traffic along the road and no telling how far till the next place with water.

Back at the guesthouse eat some food and zonk out. The next day, it is onto the old ferry, 3 hours down the road out the gorge and through a small village or two, past a handful of small rockslides. Up ahead a bang and dust floating up, as a lone rock fall from up above, a smattering of stones dot the road. On through a patch of sunflowers, and then wind down to the river. Squeeze past a herd of goats and jump onto the rustbucket of a ferry. On the other side I clamber up a really steep hill practically on all fours. Not until I get to the top and have an overview do I realise that the actual path takes a different route. Another 40 minutes or so gets me to the Snowflake hotel in the tiny village of Daju. Later on a French couple arrives and we have some tasty food with fried cheese & mushrooms, and a dish that seemed more Mediterranean than Chinese, with lots of tomatos and olive oil, all washed down with a beer. Next day hopped on a bus back to Lijiang and then it was onto Chengdu.

Into Lijiang

Into Lijiang, another old town with cobbled streets, narrow alleyways, stone bridges and countless canals. Horrendous for getting lost in, despite lots of maps. At least I had my trust compass to point me North. In the hotel a classic sign in Chinglish, "Please don't worry if fire is occuring we hotel superior facilities to ansure you transmitted safely" Great! Keeping that in mind I set off for Black Dragon Pool, a large park which contained Elephant Hill. Quickly figuring out the prices in the guidebook are often useless for tourist attractions. Entrance price is listed at 20yuan, it has tripled to 60yuan. 4 quid to get into a park, sheesh! Don't think I'll be falling for that one again. Anyway inside there was a temple/school where scholars were learning about Naxi culture. The Naxi are one of the minority cultures around Lijiang. A Dongba is a head teacher, but this title is genealogical, only if your father, grandfather were Dongba, can you be a Donga. The teaching seemed to focus on preserving the culture. Naxi writing is interesting, the only heiroglyphic language still in use. A young student eplained this to me, and suggested he could get his teacher to write my name in the writing for free? but the paper was expensive!

After strolling through the mouth of a dragon, not a real one, I headed up a set of seemingly never-ending steps, slowly climbing Elephant Hill. The occasional pagoda, provide shelter from the sun and a welcome rest. It was getting cooler up here, but the sun still burns! Eventually I made it to the top for some great views over the old town and the new city. A sweaty Chinese made it to the top also panting something along the lines of Oh Baba!? By the time I got back down I was all jellied legged.

Back at the North of the old town, a couple of waterwheels provides what seems to be the obligatory photo-shoot in Lijiang. Chances are that my arms, back of my head is in several pictures. Try and slip past the hundreds of tourists taking pictures. Umbrellas, to block the sun provide a dangerous obstacle. Next to the waterwheels is a large cobbled town square, where there are some people in traditonal dress having a song and dance. They seem to be practising, there a bit hit and miss with the dance steps, but seem to be enjoying it, faces full of concentration.

Inside the old town the streets are lined with shops selling all sorts. Lots of tourists memorabilia and knick-knacks. Shops titled such as the nine meter sunshine camel bell shop?are there for all your one meter sunshine camel bell needs. If you have any money left in your wallet you can snack on some dried yak meat, which seems popular. Or maybe purchase a kitten. On past the three wells, not exactly wells in the traditional senses as the are interlinked with the current washing through them. The highest is for drinking water, the next if for washing vegetables and the third for clothes. Interestingly the are still used in the traditonal ways, as they would have been for centuries before.

Stopping for a drink at a cafe overlooking the square, there was some intriguing choices for the brave. You could feast on five kinds of chicken stomach, some deep fried milk flakes, throw in some silk worm and finish with the "delicious water animal"
At night as darkness fell, there was more music and dance in Sifang square. People danced in a large circle round a small bonfire, well until the police came along and saw people enjoying themselves and broke it up. A handful of people were sending candles down the canals. Buy a candle boat and make a wish!

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Arriving in Dali, I jumped off the bus and try to get my orientation. Hmmm, seems I'm not where I want to be I'm in Dali City rather than old Dali. I head back to the bus station and ask somebody how to get to old Dali. They probably get asked all the time by confused backpackers. Off on the number 4 bus into town, after about half an hour arrive and get a room. Dali is a walled city with some old pedestrianised cobbled streets making for a nice quiet atmosphere, except for all the tourists!

A walk around town and you can see some of the forts. They are supposed to be restored, but they look more like they have been rebuilt. Quite a lot of cafes on the corners, often with the ingredients sitting at the door. Or past the butchers where a large hunk of meat hangs skewered on a hook for days and a bundle of unidentifiable fur lies in a heap. The town lies in the shadow of a 4000m mountain and then at the edge of the town lies some farmland and beyond that Erhai Hu, a large lake. I went for a stroll up the mountain and came across something. Never quite sure what I抦 paying to get into, is it a temple or a show? Anyway it was a bit of both it seemed. And quite a few shops. Walking past the yaks I sharpened my archery skills with the ol?bow and arrow. I think I need more practice. Inside a room, the shopkeeper magically appeared. A few Chinese tourists were getting dressed up in regal clothes and getting there photos taken, Kings and Queens for the day.

Back outside trumpets were playing as man in robe strolled through the village and read from a scroll. Not quite sure what this was all about, but they went upstairs in a house onto the balcony and throw some unfurling cloth down from there. Then a bit more speaking and they throw some flowers off the balcony which a young Chinese guy caught. He was whisked off upstairs and quickly given ceremonial dress, I assume he was married to the princess. Not speaking Chinese, I was somewhat lost about what was supposed to be going on! Not to worry, immediately next was the international language of stilts. As a group of acrobats ran about on long stilts, to fast music. They manage to do some crazy whirly stuff where the central figure turns with two people hanging on flying through the air. And then they were gone, a quick two minute show.

Back down in town water flows continually through the roads of Dali, which is built on a slight slope. Many scenic spots have been made where tourists take turns being photoed. Old merchants with a long pole over the shoulder and two balanced baskets hawk fruit. Woman dressed up in traditional dress try and get customers for restaurants.

The next day I cycled out of town to the village of Xizhou. I went down the main road and after about 15km found the turn off, a rather small place. They seem to still use cart and horse for moving stuff about, or just passenger transport. Corn lies in the streets, and outside the houses grows vegetables and herbs. After a look about I passed what looked like a pasta drying factory! I headed down towards the lake and try to head back to Dali. At the lake there was no clear track, I passed a few fishermen sorting out their nets. I pushed on but had to turn back as the track vanished to be replaced by hopping from rock to rock across the edge of the water. So back along the roads, but cobblestones don't make for a great cycling surface!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Yangshuo and onwards

I grabbed a room near the bus-stop. Yangshuo is only an hour or so ride from Guilin. The next day I went on a bike-tour, it was a scorcher. I even bought one of these big Chinese hats to stop my brain from cooking. The guide led me down a few narrow lanes and she was right I would have got lost if I went myself! It was pleasant if too hot to ride through this strange scenery. Up ahead was Moon Hill a bizarre structure where a circular hole appears in the peak. Nearby was Buddha Water Cave and I went inside for a look. Also a couple of small dogs came along to be nosy. A guide showed us round the interior. Stalactites, malacites and all things strange! Time had shaped the cave walls into weird shapes, like a curtain of rock. I tried to take some pictures but it was dark and couldn抰 see much on the screen, later I realised I still had the camera lens cover on. Doh!

A professional photographer was lurking in the caves popping up to snap us now and again. An annoying little boy proclaimed to his mother that he was going to be famous, everybody loved him as he kept getting his photograph taken. His mum had to explain that the photographer was going to try and sell them the pictures later.

Afterwards a bit more of ride around and then back, too hot! Time for some ice-cream. At dinner I headed off to a caf?and had some nice duck. Not very exotic compared to the other things at the back of the menu but nice. If you were feeling adventurous you could buy a snake. 揚lay with it, photograph it, watch it being killed. Eat the flesh, drink the blood and keep the skin!?Hmmm. Think I抣l stick with the duck.

Now I had a lot of travelling ahead. But I just went slow 慶os I抦 lazy. Back to Guilin and then down to Nanning, before hopping on the sleeper train to Kunming. Bit of confusion regarding the ticket. The ticket man said 搉o have?and so I said how about the day after tomorrow and then some confused occurred eventually I ended up with a ticket for tomorrow, strange I thought. I just had a seat instead of a bed for the 14 hour ride, groan. Anyway eventually into Kunming and fall asleep there! The next day I had a look about, another big modern city. I tried to goto the temple I came across a ticket barrier was quite sure what it was (temple or park or both?), I ended up in the zoo as it happens. Lots of peacocks here, no pandas (except for the cuddly stuffed variety). Apparently it was one of the top ten zoos in China, and it was less than impressive. Animals like leopards in tiny cages. Onto the 1000 year old Yuantong temple. Lots of smoke and incense here, also seemed to be handed out some food which was very popular! Don抰 know if this is a daily occurrence or not. Kunming is famous for across the bridge noodles, where you get a few plates of raw food, the noodles and a boiling hot broth. When the broth arrives you throw in the egg, ham, bacon, chicken bits, green veg, pickle and noodles, give it a stir and eat. Quite tasty actually! Next stop Dali.


Arriving in Guilin, the touts descended and I embarked upon the customary hotel finding mission. After going up 6 flights of stairs with my backpack I found a room, and upon returning to reception and some commotion. Eventually I was handed a phone with someone who spoke a little English and I was told I couldn抰 stay there! It was for Chinese tourists. I said I was a tourist in China, but to no avail. Yeah thanks for that, you couldn抰 of told me that before seeing the room? Anyway I found somewhere to stay. I had hardly slept a wink on the train with the air-con blasting in my face all night, I now had a cold. I dumped my bag and went out for a look about, and shortly afterwards decided to go back to bed!

It rained for three days at the remnants of a typhoon reached Guilin. When the sun came out it was quite a pleasant green city with a few parks and rivers. Lots of electric bikes, silently whizzing along the roads (and pavements). In reaching a bridge a pagoda or two was revealed to be hiding round the bend of the river. Underneath the bridge in the cool shade a group of woman were dancercising. In a park some of the structures seemed a bit tacky such as 揟he Crystal Bridge?made out of clear plastic, still the Chinese tourists seem to lap it up, cameras snapping away.

Back in the city, there is a pedestrianised walkway containing lots of cafes and shops, and fast food joints. A bit further on, in the North of the city lies Solitary Peak a limestone karst thrusting up 150m. At the bottom of the peak is a few caves and some chinese writing carved into the rock. After a some steep stairs a good view of Guilin can be had from the top. You can see more of the limestone outcrops in the distance and that would be like my next stop Yangshuo.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


I arrived in Guangzhou from Hong Kong and went through customs again in the train station. Then some tourism guy started chatting to me about my hotel and how it had closed. Hmmm. I just ignored him and hopped on the subway. Quite far to my destination Shaiman Island. I came out the subway and staggered around trying to get oriented, eventually dragged the guide book from the bag and pointed at the Chinese characters, and the I was pointed in the right direction. I asked somebody else again and she look terrified at the prospect of the "foreign devil" talking to her!

This island use to be a trading post for the British at one point and has a few old colonial buildings. It is a bit quieter than the rest of the town, with less traffic and more trees. There is an adoption centre on the island and this means a lot of foreigners, mostly Americans, pushing prams about with Chinese kids. Lots of signs up in the shops "Free Baby Stroller!" etc.

I headed into town for a look about, I found a large park and had a stroll through that. It was bigger than I thought, and I popped out a different exit. At least there are signs pointing towards the metro. A good system for getting about. I had a look at the train station and decided I would get my tickets from the travel agent instead of trying here. I wasn't expecting the travel agents to be so busy, it was mobbed everybody is going on holiday it seems. Eventually I managed to procure a sleeping ticket to Guilin.

That night I had a look around the waterfront. This is lit up with lots of neon, not quite Hong Kong style however. Lots of old(ish) people doing ballroom dancing on the esplanade. Or skating, cycling, exercising or walking backwards (I think, they think that it's good for you). I jumped on the ferry and headed across to the other side, quite a lot of bars over here, but not that busy on a Tuesday. A few bands playing some tunes, not very good though. There is even the occasional country yokel type gawping at the female singer.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Hong Kong Phooey

Just an hour boat ride from Macau, and I was in Hong Kong. The metro links the ferry habour to Kowloon, an island south of Hong Kong island. After asking for directions to the metro I ventured forth. I had been told to go down the escalators at Starbucks. After wandering around, my eyes spotted a "OF" between two pillars. The advertising people will be glad that I instantly recognised it as the OF from STARBUCKS COFFEE, freaky!
I popped out at Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) stop, a short walk and I arrived at Mirador Mansion where my guesthouse should be located. I entered the building as a tout asked "Room? Come!" and charged off expecting me to follow, I lingered right and there was a lift, and even a business directory thing on the wall naming my guesthouse. So up to the twelfth floor and there was Cosmic Guesthouse sure enough. Very small room for the price, but it is Hong Kong!
A few blocks down in Chungking Mansion, full of dodgy looking geezers hanging about occasionally trying to sell fake watches etc.

I headed out for a look around. I headed north into the Kowloon harbour area. Here a couple of museums and the waterfront are located. I jumped on the Star Ferry, which goes between Kowloon and Hong Kong proper all day, just a short ride and cheap, only 2.2$HK. Seems like more of a business district over here. Lots of skywalks linking everthing together. I got lost in some giant shopping malls, and had a giant bowl of Laska, which wasn't as good as in Singapore!

Another day I went up to Victoria's Peak on the tram. The tram ride is very steep! But a great view when you get to the top. I got there around dusk, when all the neon starts coming on. Back down at the riverside in Kowloon I saw the 8 o'clock light show, where the lights on the building flash on and off and change colour. Strange seing it on a skyscraper scale.

The World Cup Final was on while I was in Hong Kong so I went over to Lan Kwai Fong to watch the match. Most of the places were packed, with table reservations in place as long as you spent 200$HK/person. I stood outside! It was still really humid at 02:00 and there wasn't that much atmosphere. By halftime I was falling asleep so I went back and watched the rest from the airconditioned comfort of my bed.

Then it was onto mainland China. I decided to jump on the train to Guanzhuo (pronounced more like gwanjo), and escape the traffic. After a bit of hustle and bustle at the train station (okay pushing and shoving!) just to get inside. All luggage is put throw an x-ray machine, although I didn't see anybody actually watching the monitor, but the actual train ride whizzed along smoothly.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


After my passport was heavily scrutinised at customs I was eventually let in. After checking every stamp in my passport, they stamped me in with an expiry date of 01/01/2007. I was only staying three days. When I came out, my luggage has disappeared from the conveyor belt as everybody else had left. Luckily one of the staff had picked if off and I collected it. Then change money, and find the bus. Then get some coins for the bus. Then get lost on the bus ride. I was jammed up the back with my backpack. One of the locals asked me where I was going, it happened a couple of people were going the same way, so I tagged along, jumping on a local bus and getting towards the street I wanted. I found my hotel, hiding in a tea-shop. Just a lift, like an oven, which only stopped at the 3rd floor. Then opens out to a hotel.

So once I got settled it was getting dark, so I popped out for a look around. First impressions is that there is a lot of beef jerky everywhere. Seems to be shops selling all sorts of variations on every corner. I opted for some salted codfish for dinner with potatoes and eggs. Lots of eggs, not much fish or potatoes it turned out.

Lots of museums here, so I had a look around a few of them. The Maritime museum had lots of ship models, including a chinese vessel with large boulders on tall logs with hinges for dropping down and smashing enemy ships. A formidable looking weapon. Also a model of a large 7 story Chinese war ship which was supposed to "shock and awe" the enemy into submission. Apparently it wasn't actually much use in war, just looked good!

Macau used to be a Portugese colony, granted after fending off the pirates, so there is some influece noticeable in the architecture especially around the city square, with the paved wiggly lines in a piazza-type setting. I heard a few people speaking some sort of Portuguese language, with some English thrown in. Although apparently the population is now 95% Chinese. There is a F3 race course round the city, similar to Monaco. I ended up walking round it, not by choice, but because I couldn't find a way to get off the road as it is walled in. I just wanted to cross the island. Some landfills are in operation which created Fishermans Wharf, which seems kinda tacky, with faux Roman ampi-theatre and strange mascots in spring costumes. Also a landfill area is NAPE, which if filled with tower blocks, pubs and restaurants. Apparently the north of Macua is the worlds most densely populated area.

I had a look at the F3 museum and the wine museum the next day. It was only 2quid for a pass to the top 6 museums, so not epensive. I then had a look at St. Pauls Ruins which as you may have guessed doesn't have much left, just the front facade of the old church. A small crypt houses some religous art at the back.

At night time the casino lights come on, and the rich people come out to throw their money away. I headed down to Casino Lisboa, the most famous casino on the island, to watch the action unfold. But it wasn't that exciting. I guess most of the big money, is won and lost in private rooms, don't want to mingle with the riff-raff such as myself. The other problem was I didn't have a clue about how the games worked, who had won or lost. Some strange card games. At least I just about understand roulette. Not exactly fast-paced though. I headed off to the a new casino the American owned Sands casino. With hundreds of slot machines lining the walls. Here in Macau the call them "Hungry Tiges", with jackpots heading into the millions of Patacas. Needless to say I didn't win anything.

I had a spot of Nasi Goreng Indonesian style served in bamboo, and for something local a portuguese egg tart, yummy. Next stop is the short hop over to Hong Kong.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

And more cycling!

Sukothai - Tak 70km

Quite an isolated ride in some sections, not much about. Tak is a small river side market town. Had a nice dinner of duck, need the energy! I saw some more of the World Cup on the TV. Off to bed.

Tak - Thoen 95km

More long rides, as the options for stopping around are limited. I suspect they aren't many hotels in Thoen either. I found one (the one?) they seemed to have quite a lot of cyclists as there is nowhere else to stay. I had an attached "cycling room" for storing the bike. I checked the net and there is tour groups that go through here. I had chicken curry, which was mostly bones. And my banana roti wasn't great either. Next stop Lampang.

Thoen - Lampang 90km

Ouch my legs hurt. I have a rest day here in Lampang and get a massage where lots of bones snap and crackle. There is a few nice riverside restaurant with some bands. I had a beer, and then went back to the hotel by 9pm and zonked out.

Lampang - Chiang Mai 110km

A final big push and back to Chiang Mai. An early start was in order, and I managed to get out of bed! Done a quick 40km, before breakfast. Unfortunately I ended going in a rather circutious route to get on the main road. Stopped off at a service station for some noodle power. Gah, a few hills give me problems, but mostly its the relentess rotating as the distance slowly drops away. I decided to take a small detour through Lamphun, as the road is quieter than the superhighway. I've cycled a few time between Lamphun and Chiang Mai so I was back on familiar territory for the last 30km. Or I would of been if I hadn't taken a wrong turn. Anyway I eventually get back to Chiang Mai, and head for a late lunch at Mike's Burgers. Yummy!

Off to Bangkok now. Just need to sell my bike. A couple of hours before I need to leave somebody buys my bike, yah! Get back about half price for the actual bike.
I did 2529km total in 4 months or so. Now I'm going to Bangkok for two knee transplants :)

Sleeper train down to Bangkok and head off to Banglamphu. I headed into town for lunch, at the rather posh Siam Paragon. Still a food hall, but a touch more upmarket than Chiang Mai. Like the porsche and lamborgini showrooms on the 2nd floor (umm, how to you get the cars out??)

I have a shave at the barbers, hey I want my chin back!
I pick up a copy of Lonely Planet China for the astronomical price of 1300baht (Around 20quid)

I get a taxi to the airport and crawl through the Bangkok traffic. Plenty of time to check-in. Next stop Macau!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

More Cycling

Phayao - Chiang Kham 80km

A fairly flat ride to get to Chiang Kham. This is the beginning of the hills into Nan though.

Chiang Kham - Pha Lang Kha 45km

A tough ride up and down the mountains, started okay, but lots of climbing. Finally found the hotel, 5kms further on than advertised. At least I hadn't gone past it, always a worry when there is not much up ahead. Situated at the top of a mountain overlooking a valley, with a nice view. A simple bungalow is the order of the day. At night time, some food is cooked and shared with the owner, his friend and his daughter(?). Not quite sure who she was, she couldn't speak, but was Thai with pale-blue eyes, strange. The owner and his friend guzzled a bottle of whisky that night. I just had a small shot as it would be up early tomorrow to tackle the mountains again. I can see the road winding down into the valley and then up the next ridge.

Pha Lang Kha - Tha Wang Pha 80km

Aye Carumba! A swelteringly tough ride here. At 6a.m. I was whizzing down the mountain I had spent most of yesterday climbing. After about only 4km it was all over, a short flat section through the bottom of the valley before the climbing began again. By 7a.m. I made it out the other side of the valley but I was ready to go back to bed. While it might of been cooler early morning, still sweating buckets. Down the other side of this mountain leaving Pha Lang Kha, holding on to the brakes as the road is weaving down the mountain is a series of switchbacks. Down at the bottom I narrowly avoid a rummaging pig. My wheels rims are too hot to touch from all the breaking! The day continues up and down through seemingly never ending valleys. Up, up and up for ages, lots of bike pushing. And then an all to swift journey down to the bottom of another valley. I get some more water at a shop, they are few and far between in cycling terms here. After drinking thirstily, it's on and upwards, this time along a mountain ridge, fantastic scenery! Eventually a long down hill brings me to a small town, only (a relative term when mountains are involved) 10km from Nan. I ask some locals if the road to Tha Wang Pha is flat. "Mountains!", they say. My face falls, and they dissolve into laughter. Thankfullly they were joking, it's pancake road into town. Now, I just need to find a hotel. I was cycling past the post office when I here "HELLO!". I pulled over and asked somebody about a hotel, they gave me directions written in Thai to show people. After asking many people with my piece of paper I got there. I wouldn't of found it on my own!

Tha Wang Pha - Nan 45km

Back on the flat roads, which is just as well, as my legs are having a hard time on the slightest incline. After a few hours I make it to Nan, find a hotel, and have a look around town. I duck into the museum at the skies open and it pours for an hour. After that off for some dinner. Steamed Lemon Fish, not that you would know as it was doused in chillies. Oh well, I found a pub and watched Argentina destroy somebody. I decided to push on down to Phrae, as I needed to get the bus back to Chiang Mai in a couple of days for a dentist appointment.

Nan - Paradise Resort! 40km

There wasn't much in the way of accommodation between Nan and Phrae so I stopped off here. Seemed like I was the only one here. Suprising the solitaire playing staff, by being a customer. A got a little bungalow, and some lunch before a huge storm came in for the afternoon. Not much to do here anyway. At least the food was nice.

Paradise Resort - Phrae 80km

On down to Phrae, a fairly flat ride but I was needing a rest day! Rolled into town and got a room. I tried to explain to the staff that I was going to Chiang Mai and would be back, not sure they understood but never mind, by bike was still there when I returned. I had a look around town at the tourist sights, but not much seemed opened. I went along to Prathat Chai House, a big house made out of 130 logs of 300year old teak, then filled with cheap plastic souvenirs!
Some noodles and dough balls in the night market. Fairly quiet place, only a handful of foreigners here. I went for a shave, and ending up with a haircut as well.

Phrae - Si Satchanalai 131km!!

Things didn't get off to a good start as I headed out of town on the wrong road to Lampang. Mistake number two was trying to take a short-cut back to the main road. I ended up going through small villages alongside a river on a road that had no predilection for direction or directness. Apparently it led to Den Chai though, which would get me back on track. And after 40km I did indeed arrive at Den Chai, staring at a 25km to Phrae sign.
Then it was into the hills again, not as steep as the roads at Nan, more depressingly just a dead straight road rising and rising. Back to pushing the bike! It was getting hot again. Then I got soaked in the rain, most welcome! But all too soon, the sun was burning again. On and on I made it out of the hills, and down to Si Satchanalai. Now, I just had to find the Historical Park where I wanted to stay. I doubt I took the shortest route but I made it to Wang Yom just beside the park. It was late in the day an I just wanted a shower. Of course, it took ages to get the room sorted out. After cleaning it out (many places never seemd to be prepared for guests!) they found out the air-con didn't work. So cleaned out the one next door, and the shower wouldn't work. Eventually a geezer came along and fixed the taps. Hurrah! After a shower, I rightly felt like a bit of dinner. Unfortunately the hotel restaurant had closed already (it was before 19:00). Seems like everything here is set up for bus tours. Passed big restaurants and a beer garden (both closed) presumably busy during the day. Found a small Thai restaurant for a couple of dishes to fill me up and off to bed. Zonk!

Si Satchanalai - Sukothai 75km

The next morning I had a very quick look round the ruins and then onto Sukothai. Not many days left for cycling so I wanted to push on down to Sukothai and have a rest day there. After leaving late (arround midday) I ended up getting rather toasted in the sunshine. Now I've got a big red nose. I had a look around the ruins the next day. Quite impressive not as grand as Angkor Wat, but still on a large scale. Spread out over a large area it is fulls of ruins mostly from around the 13th century. They start to look all the same after a while though. Wat Sri Chum stood out as having a buddha almost encased in a large building, approaching it you can see through just a small gap.

Tommorrow it is onwards west to Tak, then north to Thoen, Lampang and finally back to Chianh Mai.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chiang Saen - Phayao

Chiang Saen - Mae Sai 45km

Just one big hill to get up and over and then fairly flat along almost a country lane till I reached Mae Sai. Here I got my new visa again. I was asked to show 10,000 baht for my stay, I didn't have it so I asked for an ATM and said it was I going to China and the guy said doesn't matter. Mae Sai is a busy border town lots of shopping spilling out on to the pavement and road selling all sorts. A short road through Mynamar links China to Thailand through which trucks rumble along. I decide I would check out Tham Luang (Big Cave) on my bike. It was about 6km away, I cam to a t-junction and took a right, I should of gone left. Anyway I got there eventually, nobody was about. My guidebook said you could hire lights there but it was spookily empty. Just a dark, dripping, dank entrance to a large cave. I went in about 5m and that was enough, back out into the sunshine. The cave is part of a green mountain spurting up out the plains rising high above Mae Sai. A lot bigger and steeper close up.

Mae Sai - Chiang Rai 65km

Back down to Chiang Rai, this time down the main highway. A fairly easy cycle but hot today, seemed a long way. Stop for cool drinks, at least no hills on this road. A bit late starting out, so I was hungry by the time I got to Chiang Rai and grab so lunch and lots of liquid.

Chiang Rai - Phayao 98km

Long ride, but flat, just seems to take forever, chugging along slowly. All about just keeping the pedals turning, not going fast! I stopped off at one of the rain/sun shelter for a rest. A truck pulled out and out jumped a Thai with a form, he wanted my to help fill in the English form, as a widowed friend wanted her kids to be Swiss citizens. After helping with that back on the road. Have a long lunch and a rest before continuing on. Eventually arrive in Phayao and cycle round in circles trying to find somewhere to stay. Decide on the Wattanna hotel, not too bad for the price. I've got a TV so I can watch some of the football. My legs hurt! The anniversary of the King's 60th Ascension to the throne is this weekend. A lot of people join in a parade to the local park. A big band, soldiers and civilians wearing the yellow t-shirt make up the throngs. I didn't think there was this many people here. Phayao is a small provincial town based on a artificial lake. I popped along to the main Wat, but undergoing repairs. Here is housed the largest lanna style buddha, but I get only a glimpse through the scaffolding. I visit the attached musuem, which even had exhibits in English, not bad for a small town. I am nearly the only foreigner in town. A bus comes each days and deposits a tour-group of foreigners for 20 minutes of coffee and a toilet stop before they are whisked off. I bumped into a couple of people who are actually living here, but they are working at the bible school. Now I'm addicted to ice-cream.

Tomorrow I set off for Chiang Kham, I suspect there may be hills involved!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Back in Chiang Mai (again!)

Wed - Mae Chan to Chiang Saen - 35km

I found some dinner in Mae Chan, one of these cook 'em yourself types. I didn't feel so good a few hours later, I'm blaming that round squidy/fishy thing. But I managed to get on the bike and cycled along to Chiang Saen, at the North East border of Thailand. The Mekong runs down past Chiang Saen, across the other side is Laos. As flat a ride as I'm likely to get on the way here, barely a hill was climbed. Chiang Saen has some old ruins in the city and like Chiang Mai has/had a wall and moat surrounding the perimeter. I went for a look round the museum and then booked a bus ticket back to Chiang Mai. Why? Because I've got toothache :(. I decided I would rather take my chances with a dentist in CM rather than out in the country!
After a 5 hour bus journey, I dumped my bag at Kavil's Guesthouse. The owner was suprised to see me again. Then I headed off to Chiang Mai Ram the new hospital at the north-west corner of the moat. They had a dental clinic, at first I made an appointment for the following day, but after some persuasion I managed to see the dentist (just for an examination they said). Turned out my wisdom tooth need removed, so they gave me some antibiotics and then 30minutes later started the pulling and yanking and general unpleasant tooth-pulling type stuff. So I'm down a wisdom tooth and munching on pain-killers. A bit better today than yesterday when it was very sore, a big gaping hole in my gums! Went and saw XMen 3, quite good in a special effect sort of way. I'll head back up to Chiang Saen in the next day or two and return to cycling, need to go to Mae Sai and get my visa stamped on the 7th.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

More Cycling

Sunday - Chiang Rai to Akha Hill House - 23km

Akha Hill was only 25km or so away, so I was in no hurry to leave. About 11.30 I got unyderway. A pleasant ride with little traffic. I was stopped after about 10km by a man in uniform holding up the traffic as a funeral procession heading towards a wat. A single rocket whizzed into the air before exploding. I progressed onwards cyling down past the river, until a sign stating Akha Hill pointed left along a dirt track. Along there I headed making slow but steady progress. It was getting hot and no shade was to be found. I struggled on for a bit in the lowest gear before getting tired and resorting to pushing it uphill. The gruesome climb turned out to be a real monster. After an hour or so I struggled to the summit absolutely drenched in sweat. Then downhill, it was that steep that it felt like I was going to go over the handlebars! I made it down to a village and promptly bought a nice cold bottle of water, aaah. Still Akha Hill was another few km over rough road and a final very steep hill. But I had made it! Not exactly luxury rooms, but as it was up a mountain you have to share with the locals. The locals being mozzies, flying ants, giant spiders as big as my hand and the ever stupid moths. The Akha people are one of the hill tribes resident in the north of Thailand, each hill tribe has it own customs, clothes and even languages. Most of them there don't speak Thai.

The rainy season is here though and that's what it did. Still at least I had a nice view, as I read my book under the cover of my bungalow roof as the rain splattered down into the valley below. There was a couple of Austrians there the first night, and a couple of Mexicans and a Candian the next night. After a couple of nights I was ready to leave and get a decent sleep, and not worry about what was making that rustling noise during the night. Not quite sure what's worse seeing a giant spider above your head, or seeing that the giant spider is no longer above your head. The mosquito net was tucked in tightly!

I took the easy option out and threw my bike in the back of a pickup truck and got a lift back to Chiang Rai.

Tuesday - Chiang Rai to Mae Chan - 35km

A simple ride along the major highway, well it was once I located the highway. Plenty of space to ride, almost a lane to myself. I tried to eat a whole pineapple from a side of the road vendor for 10baht. I failed though, and gave the rest to the a nearby mangy mutt. The dog was owned by the vendor and I'm sure it thought, "Oh no not pineapple again!"

I found a place to stay easily enough, it even has a strange kind of porch/sitting room with a fridge with nothing but 2 bottles of water and a moth in it. I had a quick cycle about town and then headed back and finished off my book. I strolled into town just after five, to find it was all shut. Although I did find this Internet cafe place that I now type of. Harded to find somebody to but a ticket to use the computer though. I shall head off for a spot of dinner soon, if I can find an open restuarant!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cycling North Thailand

Day 1 (22nd) Chiang Mai to [null] (0km)

Drank too much Chang Beer last night playing some Scottish geezer at pool. Cycling postponed.

Day 1 (23rd) - Chiang Mai to Windmill Country (46km)

Even though I had the whole of yesterday to pack, I left it till the morning of departure. Typically I had too much stuff to cram into my daypack, but eventually by some quirk of fate I managed to zip it shut. The self-satisfied smirk was soon wiped from my face as I turned round to discover a spare inner tube pleading to be included on the trip. Eventually bags were packed, rucksacks stoved and helmets fastened. Strangely enough the rack on my bike was a lot narrower and my bad a lot wider than I anticipated. Still after ten minutes of experimentation I jury-rigged the daypack rather precariously to the rack. Didn't look the most stable of arrangements, but as long as it didn't drop off and land in front of a truck (like my last bike tour!) then I would be a happy chappy.

Soon I was weaving my way amongst Chian Mai's finest motorbike, tuk-tuks and songthaews, towards the river. My first mistake was to think I knew where I was going, the second was to think i would be able to get there. I ended up being forced along Chiang Mai's one way system. I did make it over the river and through the construction zone of the superhighway. However, I was not going in entirely the right direction. Still as I stopped at the traffic lights I surveyed the bloke idling his motorbike, he was carrying a package on the back attached with bungee ropes. Within ten minutes I had procured a bungee rope for the pricely sum of 10 baht. Now with the luggage safely attached I sped on in the slightly wrong direction. Soon, I took a swift left turn and 6kms more than needed I was back on track, the 118 to Doi Saket. I was easing my way slowly out of Chiang Mai. The traffic thinning the further I proceeded. Out on to the open road, free of traffic lights and now I even had a lane to myself, everybody else likes the fast lane. Building thinned out, greenery appeared, you could even breathe the air!

After an hour of so I reached the turn off for Doi Saket, the last point before heading into mountain wilderness. Stopped off here for a spot of brunch, chicken fried rice. Legs were already feeling a bit heavy. I'd hardly been out on the bike the last couple of weeks. Not a good sign especially as I knew what was up ahead, hills, big ones too. Even at this early stage I'd ruled out getting to Khun Chae National Park, 60km from Chiang Mai. I would instead head for the windmill place I had spotted whilst on the bus doing a visa run. After about 25km from Chiang Mai, the hills started. Big undulations at first and then a steep climb. The road split into three lanes, two up, one down. This allowed all the old bangers to crawl ever so slowly up the hill, not to mention the occasional sweaty Scotsman on a bike. I was soon in bottom gear, threatening to blow a gasket as I wheezed up the mountain. I stopped off for a well deserved breather at a shrine. Everybody in their cars beeps their horns when passing the shrine, maybe it is the god of Road Safety. Onwards and upwards I went (thankfully not much more upwards). Then down, down fast. Stopped at the top for a coke, at least in the middle of nowhere you can still get a drink at a stall in Thailand. Then a another stop for ice coffee and a flick through Architecture Monthly (it was either that or Thailand Tattler). Judging by the adverts, anybody reading this is interested in either a new kitchen stove or wealth management. After a lazy half hour I was back on the bike, shouldn't be far now. But then the sun came up to fry my brains! Eventually I arrived red armed and rosy faced. More expensive than I wanted to pay, but the owner was not for giving a discount. Well I did get 50baht off, which he got back as I guzzled five bottled of water in my stay. Besides I wasn't like I was going anywhere else. Cold shower, aaah! Then have a quick nosy about, it is a nice spot. Still not quite sure why there is a large windmill as there is never a steady breeze up these parts. I had some garlic chicken, but it didn't seem to keep the mozzies at bay :(

Day 2 (23rd) - Windmill Country to Suan Charin (103km)

I knew a long climb was the beginning order of the day, but it didn't make it go away. After a hearty ABF (2 egss, 2 sausages, 2 toast & 1 coffee) I was set, ready for an apres-brekkie nap that is. But this bike wasn't going to cycle itself over the mountain (at least not without me cannibalising a lawn-mower). Things started slowly and went downhill (or should that be uphill?) I couldn't get my legs into gear. They refused to go uphills and struggled even on the occasional downhill, not a good sign. After a few more rests, I stopped off at another shrine high on the hill. Here I spotted some brightly coloured birds one with slashes of brilliant red, the other yellow. So vibrant were the colours I wondered if bird-painting might be a national pastime. The certainly caught your eye. Somebody stopped off at the shrine I was at. I though maybe to place an offering for the Buddha, like I had seen in the past. That notion was quickly dispelled at they ran off into the woods clutching a bundle of toilet paper. A different sort of present then, I thought, time to be going. I leaped to my feet and pushed my bike up the next hill. Rounding the corner I spotted a sign for Khun Chae National Park. Indeed a splendid sight as I thought it was still 5km away. I knew that this meant the peak of the big hill. Soon I was whizzing down the other side of the mountain reaching speeds of 60km. Then on past what looked like a "Main Bridge out of order, drive through the mud" sign. It was indeed. Like a scene out of Glastonbury, the road had turned to sludge. Certainly not the easiest surface to cycle through and I ended up rather mud-splattered from the passing cars and my own treacherous bike! For a few more km's mud was dragged through the streets. Then a bit of cleanliness. That didn't last long. I had a made a mental note that the road was awful for about 15km, but it most of fallen down one of the folds on my cerebrum. The edge of the road was mostly dust and rubble held together with potholes. I had to push out to middle of the road for something to cycle on, but so did everybody else. Anyway, I came to to some hot springs. Not the sort to dip your toes in at 90C though. A strong smell of sulphur was in the air but that might just of been the eggs that were being cooked in the water for the tourists. In a "too little-too late" moment I purchased a small bottle of suntan lotion (for 300baht!) to try and keep my red bits pink. I thought I might stay at Wiang Pa Po but it was dusty and unappealing so I pushed on. After 30 minutes I saw a sign saying Wiang Pa Po - 3km. Huh? I guess that was some other town back there then. Still now the road was flat and after some Phad Thai I was feeling resurgent and soared along the road for another hour before fatigue started clawing again at my legs. The kilometres to Mae Suai slowly but surely ticked down. I arrived at a T-junction (how did this get a dot on my map?) I could take a left to Fang Oil well, I continued straight. Accommodation was available a short distance after this village. I checked my map and indeed it did look a short but bendy ride away. The road seemed to consist of giant U-shaped sections through the valley. Rounding a corner I could see the same road looping back in a giant curve. Still I pedalled on, as I was wondering if I was ever going to get somewhere, a fantastically welcome signed proclaimed the hotel to be only 200metres away, hurrah!!

I settled into a room and tried not to fall asleep, just yet. The restaurant, the only one for miles around, closes at 18:45. After that cycle, which by the dubious calculations of my bike computer burned off 1660 calories, I was feeling, what shall we say? - A trifle peckish. After munching down on the ever dependable chicken & cashew nuts, I tucked into a cheese & ham sandwich. There wasn't much else to do except a quick read of my book and off for an early night as I suspected that the translucent curtains would do nothing to prevent the room lighting up at dawn.

Day 3 (24th) Suan Charin - Chiang Rai (51km)

I woke up at 6am, promptly buried my head under the covers and got up at a more realistic time 3 hours later. After some toast & egg I was underway. It was going to be a relatively short day as Chiang Rai lay a mere 43km away. Again a slow start (note to self: double number of morning star jumps) but I had stopped in the right location, all those monster hills were safely behind me. Just some gentle undulations and mild climbs. Ahead lay highway number one, the Pan-Asian highway. Through this road you could (theoretically if not legally) traverse from Singapore all the way to, ooh, Skye! Instead I oped to go the quiet back road the 1211 into Chiang Rai. The 1211 barely had any traffic on it as I cycled along. The quiet road lent a lazy feel and a slow pace of life was in evidence. This stupor even extended to the dogs as they couldn't be bother to bark never mind chase me. Not one whimper! A fairly uneventful ride culminated in my arrival at Lek's house. A more reasonable priced guesthouse than the posh places of the past 2 days. I did pass a couple of intriguing signs on the way here though. First up "Fish Reserve & Buddhist Studies". Seemed a little odd until I cycled past a sign for the "Ostrich & Rottweiler Farm".

Oooh, I just found 50 paise (1/2 ruppee). Actually I didn't as your not supposed to take money out of India. Whew, a close call. Still it wasn't at all what I was looking for. That object being rather important if you want to leave the country. Yep, in an outstanding display of clot-headedness I left my passport in Chiang Mai. Tomorrow I return by bus, sigh...