Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Seriously Chilled

Well, here I am, back at my favourite airport waiting for my flight to Phuket, Thailand. Things weren't quite as bad this time as it seems the security was much more interested in the bag belonging to the blonde, blue eyed five year old in front of me and completely disregarded the fact that I was hauling three bags with me as carry on; one of which was overweight and contained explicitly contraband items such as nail clippers and cough syrup.

Although I enjoyed my time in Bali, I am excited about going to a bit more of an upbeat location. I don't know what kind of chill pill they put in the water system in Bali, but those people are honestly the most laid back, placid group I have ever come across. They did get a little upbeat during the temple festivals with a lot of drum banging and cymbal clashing but day to day interactions were very low key. I don't think I heard anyone raise their voice and even without traffic lights and major congestion on the tiny roads, absolutely no road rage to be seen. Drivers calmly wait for others and wave bikes through as necessary.

Unlike everywhere else I visit, I never once felt like I was being taken advantage of, overcharged or ripped off. In fact, everything was so cheap and everyone was so accommodating that I felt like I was taking advantage of them. Everyone seemed almost apologetic when taking my money and accepted it for transactions as if I was doing them a great favour!

Monkey Road in Ubud.  These monkeys might look cute but they are nasty,
 thieving little critters!  I even managed to get bit by one.

Since the services were so wonderful and cheap I decided to pay for a few outings that I wouldn't usually do. I was staying in central Bali and really wanted to check out the beaches to the south so I had Keili, the manager, call a tour company that advertised a trip that included ocean walking (they put a helmet with a hose attached to it to breath and drop you about 5 metres into the ocean to play with the fish, or sharks, or whatever else might decide to join you), a visit to Uluwato Temple, a couple of hours at Padang Padang Beach, then on to Jimbaran Beach for a sunset dinner. All of this for seventy five dollars. I was picked up in the morning by Wayan in a very sleek looking black car. It turned out Wayan was my personal driver for the day and the "tour" was just for me and I could do anything I wanted while Wayan saw to all my needs and wants! He was really put to good use when I very clutzily smashed my toe into a rock while at the beach. I knew I had done some pretty good damage when it started gushing blood over the white sandy beach and my stomach started to heave (I tend to get sick to my stomach when encountering huge pain). Instantly, visions of strange Asian bacteria entering my bloodstream and ending in amputation, entered my head. I decided to suck up the pain and walk into the nice salty Indian Ocean to cleanse the wound and then hobbled over to get a beer to settle my nerves. I made it back through the rock tunnel and up the cliffside to the parking area and Wayan quickly pulled out his handy first aid kit and preceded to do the first aidy thing with various ointments and salves designed, I'm sure, to fight off those nasty Asian bacterias. All in all a terrific day out!

On another day I joined a cycling tour which began at the top of Mount Batu, an active volcano in Eastern Bali. We had a small group which drove mainly downhill through villages and paths. We made several stops along the way while our guide, Edi, explained some local customs and practices. He took us to the back of someones home where we could see the large mache animals that were being created. Edi explained that these would be used for cremation. When villagers die they are buried in the cemetery but every five years there is a village cremation where the dead are exhumed (but only the ones that are more then two years deceased because, according to Edi, the fresh ones would smell!) The exhumed bones are placed on this large paper mache animal which is attached to a paper temple, elaborately decorated. There is a mass parade of these bone transporters to a communal cremation area. Edi explained that since Bali still follows a caste system then this wouldn't be the practice for the Brahmin caste who would instead have private cremations.

I also got to meet a bit of Balinese wildlife when Edi stopped to introduce us to some very huge spiders. He said that they were harmless so I let him put it on my arm but as it started scurrying towards my face all pretense of bravery was gone and I yelled in a very high pitched, unbrave voice, for him to get it off!

On one of my scooter outings I visited the famous Monkey Road in Bali. This is a temple sanctuary in the middle of Ubud which is overrun with the little beggars. Now, before this visit I used to think that monkeys were cute but these little beggars were downright vicious. I had bought some little bananas to feed the cute little monkeys but as soon as they noticed them they table manners at all. When I hurriedly put them in my bag and zipped it up the nasty things tried to rob of them actually bit me! Luckily, there are nice Balinese security people standing around with sticks to wave the more aggressive monkeys away. After he assured me that I was not going to die of some strange monkey rabies, I made sure I stayed next to the guy with the stick for the rest of my visit! I saw many monkeys toting around lipsticks, random sandals, and other illicitly gotten goods so these security people weren't always effective!  The temple itself was actually quite beautiful with some amazing sculptures!

Next stop, Koh Phi Phi in Thailand!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In Bali I'm Rich!

My pool in Bali.
I have been in Bali for a week now and I can honestly say that this is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable places I have ever been.

Bali is a province of Indonesia but is quite distinct in that it is 85% Hindu while the rest of Indonesia is primarily Muslim. Bali became popular as a tourist destination in the 20s and 30s when bohemian artsy types first visited and wrote about the artistic Balinese people and culture. I'm sure the many stories about topless Balinese native women didn't hurt either. The island was an exotic destination that became popular with the surfer, hippy crowd in the 60s and 70s. It grew tremendously as a tourist destination for Australians, Chinese and Japanese in the 80s and 90s. Tourism fell off somewhat in the first decade of the twentieth century after two separate bombings took place in the dense tourist destinations of Kuta. The well known movie, based on the book of the same title, Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts has helped to revive the bustling tourist industry here. Many people now lament the added development that has occurred, particularly in the south and south east part of the island.

These small offerings are placed everywhere many times a day.

My carving being prepared.
Having travelled to many hot tourist spots, I must say that Bali has been a pleasent respite despite the many tourists. This may be because I chose not to stay in the more popular beach destinations but rather in a small village in the center of Bali called Penestanan. This village is close enough to Ubud, a famous artistic center, to be convenient but far enough away to be peaceful. The property I am staying in has three Villas that are all sufficiently isolated with tasteful foliage so you feel quite alone. In fact, I am quite alone because no one else is staying here. I have a huge villa with a beatiful salt water pool which is next to a field of rice paddies. Each day, Ari, a young Balinese gentleman delivers my breakfast with a bow. He is so quite and gentle spoken (as are all of the Balinese people I have met) that I rarely hear him approach. He calls me Miss Terry and quitely goes about business cleaning up after me and arranging all of my needs.
The village has a population of about 2000 and like all villages in Bali there are three temples and numerous small Warungs or shops. The Balinese seldom travel as they make family, home, and religion the centre of their lives. Many times a day small offerings are made everywhere you look. Women walk about with trays of small dishes containing incense and offerings to both evil spirits and good ones. This small trays are absolutely everywhere and are offered for all activities with a small prayer. The villages are divided into family compounds which contain numerous buildings for all of the extended family. The compounds each have entranceways which are more elaborate based on the means of the family. The entranceways have small temples at which offerings are made but inside the compounds are larger family temples where ceremonies often take place. The villagers have many celebrations and gatherings at the village temple where they play unique Balinese music and dance. There has been music every night of my stay since the temple in this village is about thirty metres from my Villa. It was charming the first couple of nights but a bit annoying after that. Another charming but eventually annoying sound occurs each morning as the roosters and dogs seem to make it their duty to make sure no one sleeps past six am! These damned roosters seem to take their job very seriously as they continue to make a racket all morning!

Villager going about her business.
I have had daily use of a scooter while here so I have not been isolated in the village. The scooter is the main form of transportation in Bali although there are also many cars and busses. The roads are extremely narrow and many can only be accessed by scooter. I was slightly nervous at first since the scooters actually go quite fast and there are literally scooters everywhere. I was determined to see a bit more of Bali on my own, however, so I donned my helmet and with my trusty iPhone for navigation, off I went! My first stop in Ubud was a cell phone shop where I was able to quickly get a new SIM card for the ridiculously low cost of $10! Now I was safe to go exploring. I had a wonderful day driving through villages and through the countryside. I saw many people going about their business working in rice paddies, washing clothes, drying rice on mats on the road, taking children to school and everywhere I went people waved and said, "Hallo." I thought they were practicing English until I discovered that hello in Indonesian is hallo!
Bali is famous for its artistic wood, stone, and bone carving. These carvings are done in the villages and then sold in the larger tourist areas such as Kuta and Ubud. I stopped at one small place where the carvings were being stained by two women. I guess they weren't used to drop ins because when I used my translator to ask, "How much," while pointing at an unfinished carving, the woman had to call someone. She told me it would be 25,000 Rupiah but that I would need to come back later so they could finish it. 25,000 Rupiah is roughly $2.50....honestly, no wonder I feel like a millionaire here! When I withdrew money from the ATM, I had taken out two and a half million rupiah. But not only are the denominations huge, everything is extremely cheap. In all likelihood, I would have paid a great deal more for my carving if I had bought it at a shop in Ubud so I hastily agreed to come back in a couple of hours.

Some local children going to school.

Next on my journey I visited the Tellanagan Rice Terraces. These were absolutely stunning and although not as high as the mountainous terraces in Longshen, they were possible even more beautiful. I was able to go down and walk in the terraces and met a gentlman at one of the many huts. Now usually, I would be pretty cautious and sceptical about random people wanting to show me around and help me take pictures but I was caught up in the moment and continued my walk through the terraces with this new helper. There were many random Balinese working in the fields and my new guide indicated that they lived in the paddies and he took me to one of their houses. When we were away from prying eyes he surreptitiously unwrapped a package from his jacket that contained two exquisite bone carvings. I couldn't resist when he agreed to a price of 12,000 Rupiah ($1.20) and now I just hope they aren't some banned object.

Bone carvings.

I made it back to my little village in one piece and after taking a short walk down some very dark streets with my little flashlight and being clipped in the shoulder by a passing van, I can say that I think the motor bike was a lot safer than walking!

Tellaganan Rice Terraces, Bali

Small home in the Rice Terraces.

My Unofficial Guide

There Are No Oompa Loompas in Kuala Lumpur!

In order to make it to Bali, I had to make a connecting flight in Kuala Lumpur. That name always makes me think of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate factory since, when I first read this book as a child, I had thought this was where these fictitious characters actually lived. My layover was only about three hours so I didn't actually get to explore the city but the airport sure did dispel any fond thoughts I entertained about Kuala Lumpur.

Now, I knew that this airport is the hub of air transportation for Asia but I really wasn't prepared for the sheer chaos. The frequent Asian travellers didn't seem to have any problems but this newbie was admittedly a bit overwhelmed!  We departed the aircraft after a friendly announcement by the pilot that our gate was the furthest from the building we were to enter and then proceeded, in a somewhat orderly fashion, to wind our way across the tarmac while dodging loading carts and other vehicles. At one point, I stopped to snap a picture of one of the planes, and was nearly run over! After being loudly chastised by an airport person waving flags I made sure to stay with the group for the rest of the endless hike. Following the crowd I landed up in a huge immigration area. Since I was only on a layover, with the same airline, I didn't think I should need to go through the whole immigration thingy so I tried to ask an official looking person if I was meant to be somewhere else. He waved me back down the flight of stairs I had just come up. I joined another queue and when I finally got to the front the woman told me that I had enough time between flights so I would need to go back upstairs, go through immigration, check back in and find my way to the departing gate. Ok, back up to immigration.

I joined the very long line and finally was given my temporary Malaysian Visa...good to know I could now stay here for thirty days if I so desired! I continued to follow the crowd and made my way to a large open area filled with people. I spotted a sign for International departures and thought that would be a likely place to check back in for my next Air Asia flight. As I joined a line to have my bags scanned a kindly Australian I had met on the plane asked if I had printed my boarding pass because if I didn't I would face an additional charge - gotta love budget airlines. He pointed me in the right direction and by managing to put on my gormless tourist face I got a friendly young security person to quickly print my pass. Back to the security check. It wasn't much of a security check in my opinion since I only put my carry on suitcase through and no one questioned my backpack slung over my shoulder. As I scanned this new area it seemed to be just a baggage drop off and since I planned on just carry on I didn't think this was the right place for me. Another, rather abrupt security person waved my off in another direction so I carried on back the way I came.

Spotting a sign for Gates I approached the queues and joined the one where the fellow was testing weight just by lifting the bag rather than putting it on a scale. As he lifted mine he muttered, "Heavy," and proceeded to tell his colleague to weigh my bag. They told me 10.5 kg was too heavy and they weren't listening to my logical argument that I had just come off of an Air Asia flight with the same bag as my carry on. He must have felt a little sorry for me as at this point I was looking a bit sweaty and disheveled. He indicated that maybe I could take some things out and put them in my backpack. I moved to the side, opened the case and started stuffing whatever I could into my backpack. Three tries later, with pullovers tied around my waist, my Air Transat comfy blanket and neck rest swinging from my bulging knapsack and my Tilley hat threatening to strangle me as it hung around my neck, and I was through!

Joined another security check (honestly, how many of these things do you need) where they once again only scanned my small suitcase. Finally, I was on the other side and took a moment to try to hastily repack my luggage. Making my way through the hordes of people in this terminal proved to be a huge challenge in itself. There were people everywhere. They were sitting on benches, standing against walls, sitting on luggage and a never ending stream of conversations was filling the place in every language imaginable.

Very crowded terminal in Kuala Lumpur.

Now, I had been travelling all day on an empty stomach and was getting pretty hungry so my next mission was to find something to eat. My stomach was grumbling as I passed many reasonably priced kiosks but each one I approached took cash only and most of these only took Malaysian cash. I spied a money exchange and was very rudely and abruptly told I could not buy ten Malaysian dollars with my Chinese Yuan. I was getting desperate as I passed a Dunkin' Donuts with a sign saying it took American Dollars. I had tucked forty American in my wallet just for gastronomic emergencies such as this so a few minutes later, and fifteen dollars worth of change in Malaysian money, I was happily devouring a delicious double egg croissant, an iced coffee and a donut!

Back down to my departure gate where I too leaned against a pillar to prepare myself for the long trek across the tarmac to board. Despite numerous "security checks" not once did anyone scan or look into my knapsack!

So I now have a lovely Malaysian Visa stamp in my passport and thirty two Malaysian Ringgat (money) to commemorate my stay in the Kuala Lumpur airport. Unfortunately, I didn't see even one Oompa Loompa!

Onwards to Bali.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Things I Learned in China

As I prepare to move on in my journey of Asia I have been reflecting on some of the things I have learned during my time in China. Now, China is a very large country and, admittedly, I have only been able to sample a small part of what it has to offer, but these are some of the things I have learned:

  • it is possible to carry a refrigerator and a full family of four on a scooter
  • a horn is a useful accessory on a vehicle and should be used often
  • rice noodles can be for breakfast
  • porridge can be made of rice
  • a very firm mattress is wonderful and I need one
  • a silk duvet is the best
  • there are other places in China besides Beijing and Shanghai
  • a large, ceramic mushroom is a perfectly acceptable lawn ornament
  • many Chinese are still fascinated by the 'white foreigner'
  • the Chinese are a friendly and helpful people
  • the Chinese show great respect for teachers
  • I can survive for three weeks eating Chinese food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
  • red and gold may seem gaudy to Westerners but these are important colours in China
  • squatting is actually a very sensible and natural way to relieve oneself
  • cicadas are a very annoying insect and deserve to be made into a tasty snack

Now, off to Bali!


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dragon's Backbone

When I was planning my trip to China one of the places I decided to visit was the Longshi Rice Terraces. The terraces were built during the Ming dynasty, about 500 years ago and are thought to resemble the scales of a dragon and are therefore known as the Dragon's Backbone.

Once again, I headed down to the local bus station to secure transportation. I had fully researched my options for transport to Ping'An before this trip so I felt pretty confident. Alas, my research proved useless as even the "helper" ladies walked away in disgust at my feeble efforts to locate a bus. Finally, a young man approached me, and in passable english, told me he would make a call. He then indicated that I should wait as he had called someone and they would come and get me. Now, I like to be spontaneous when I travel but I don't like to take foolish chances. I tried to determine what type of transport he had arranged and he seemed to be telling me that his friend would come with a car. After sitting and thinking about this for a minute I felt rather uncomfortable with getting into a vehicle with some random guy and driving off with the naive hope that this was all very safe. I approached my transport arranger and tried to tell him to forget it since I was uncomfortable going someplace by myself with his friend. He explained that they had rented a vehicle and I would be safe. This seemed even more suspicious so I tried to say no thank you and after much discussion back and forth I was made to understand that there would be other tourists and it was a van. I decided to wait and see what the transport was like and was pleasantly surprised when a very nice van pulled up with a family of Chinese tourists. I asked them if they were all going to Ping'An and they told me they were. It seemed pretty safe so I hopped in and 50 Yuan and two hours later I was wondering the village of Ping'An and taking in the beautiful scenery!

The climb to the top is not for the feint of heart. I had thought that the Great Wall was a workout but Ping'An definitely rivaled that little hike. For those who couldn't, or wouldn't, attempt the hike there are numerous palanquins available which are carried by some very strong locals with good backs. I felt very sorry for some of the men who were hauling tourists up countless stairs as they seemed quite elderly (the haulers, not the tourists). Some of the transportees looked quite fit to me and having your butt carried seemed to be a bit of a cop out. I'm proud that I was able to hike the whole way on my own sturdy legs...admittedly, I was rather red in the face and a bit out of breath at the peak, but at least I did it!

When I was ready to return I just hung around the parking lot asking if there was a bus to Guilin and a woman at the Information desk called a driver over and next thing I knew, I was sitting on a bus headed back to my hostel! Successful day!

I spent the evening wondering around Guilin and met a fellow lone traveller from France. She was also a teacher and we had a great chat over some dinner. Back at the hostel, I shared a beer with Matt from Sweden who was reliving his youth by travelling solo through China. This was the first night of his adventure so I gave him some tips before heading off for an early night.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Li River or "We Go Shopping"

The Li River, China

I've always thought that the journey is often more memorable than the destination and today's adventures support this theory. Being adverse to both organized tours and taxis often means that I must be extremely resourceful about visiting many destinations. Today I wanted to go to a little village called Yangdi and take a bamboo boat ride along the scenic river Li to the village of Xingping.

The easy, touristy way to see the Li River's majestic scenery is to join a tour and be picked up early in the morning at your hotel in Guilin, take a five hour ride crammed onto a noisy, smelly ferry boat, be fed cafeteria style then taken to a specific area to buy local crafts and merchandise, followed by a bus ride to be safely deposited back at your hotel. This seemed rather unappealing to me as it rarely affords a traveller the opportunity to meet local people and to get a feel for the day to day life in any particular location.

I had conducted a bit of research before coming but there were no clear instructions about how to attempt my journey. I had hoped to go to the bus station and get a local bus to Yangdi where I would secure a bamboo boat ride to Xingping, then take a bus to Yangshou where I would take a bus back to Guilin. An ambitious plan, so armed with a few words of the destinations, written in Chinese by the hostel clerk, and my trusty iPhone off I went with the warning of the clerk, "I think maybe you can't get there." Challenge accepted!

The bus and train station seemed to be one and the same with dozens of buses parked outside the train station. There are big buses, little buses, modern buses, and dilapidated buses. The area is teeming with stalls, vendors and a very large number of women who seem to be making it their life's work to ensure that everyone finds their correct bus. There must be some kind of profit in this endeavour as I'm sure they are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. There is no english signage on the buses at all and very few people in the area seem to speak any english. I first went to what seemed to be the ticket purchasing counter, ignoring the many women trying to get my attention. I hopefully, showed the woman at the counter my paper with the word "Yangdi" on it but she rapidly said something and made an abrupt motioning gesture as if to say, "Go away."
Not to be discouraged, I spied a sign saying Tourist Information and thought that this might be a likely place to get some solid information. Unfortunately, by tourist they don't mean clueless foreigners such as myself but rather the many millions of Chinese tourists that visit this region yearly. The gentleman inside started off patiently as I asked him if he spoke English and he indicated a little. Well apparently it was a very little, because although I think I made him understand that I wanted a bus to Yangdi there was no way that I could understand him as he tried to give me directions in some very rapid Chinese. After about five minutes of me trying to understand him, while using the odd Chinese word, he began to get very frustrated and made the 'go away' motion by violently extending one arm with finger pointing, while loudly yelling the only english words I could understand, "I SAY, NO ENGISH!" I made a hasty retreat.

The next booth with the tourist information sign looked more promising as there was a friendly looking young lady who was soon joined by a man with an iphone. I thought they knew what I needed as they indicated I should walk down the street for 500 meters and look for a green bus. I was rather dubious about these instructions as "down the street" just seemed to be stores and restaurants. I had walked a complete circle and was back to where I started. I noticed some small green buses so I approached them and tried to match the Chinese characters of my destination with the signs and show the drivers my paper. Looking helpless and confused will attract the helping ladies quicker than honey attracts flies in a transportation hub. They quickly gathered around waving placards of tours and maps in my face while yelling the names of the local tourist highlights. I kept muttering "Bu shur," and waving my hand in the no gesture. But it was no use, if I was ever going to make it to this Bamboo boat ride I was going to need some real help.

One of the hovering women seemed to have better english and she was thrilled as I began to engage her in conversation. The others drifted away. This entrepreneurial young woman quickly grasped that I wanted to go to Yangdi so she pulled me by the arm to one of the many buses while explaining that I would need to take a bus to Yangshou and get off along the way. She indicated that the cost was 14 RMB and then sat me in the front seat. She introduced me to another woman on the bus travelling with her son to Yangdi, where they lived. This native of the town I wanted to visit, spoke excellent English and I was starting to feel hopeful that this day was going to be successful after all. I was getting ready to pull out a 10 Yuan note to hand to the woman who had assisted me when next thing I knew she was sitting beside me on the bus. As we pulled out, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable and hoped that I had not inadvertently secured her services as a personal guide for the day. I hoped that she would perhaps get off the bus at some point but this didn't happen. She continued to speak to the driver and money collector as we drove along and I had the distinct impression that they were involved in some type of three way scam and I was the target. The money collector started at the back of the bus collecting and I got my money out to pay. My "helper" indicated that she would make change for me and tried to hand me three 1/2 Yuan notes which have the numeral 5 on them and therefore might be mistaken as a 5 Yuan note. I was aware of this scam and quickly made the woman know that I was not impressed with her. When the money collector reached me I gave him my 20 Yuan note and he gave me change. He and my would be helper seemed to be having a good laugh over the whole event and I hoped that now the woman would get off the bus and go back to the train station to find another victim.

Alas, she did not and after a couple of hours the bus pulled over at the side of the road and the mother and son, along with several others, got off so I followed them. The "helper" lady also followed and I began to feel that ditching her was going to be more difficult than I imagined. I felt like a had a candy wrapper stuck to the sole of my shoe and no matter how hard I shook my foot it will not unstick!

The woman from Yangdi was very helpful and told me that although there were cars offering rides, we would take the bus as the cars charge too much. I really thought the "helper" lady would take the hint if I just blanked her, but no, as I boarded the next little bus there she was right beside me. This bus was jammed with locals who were pretty much on top of one and other. I told the woman I was following that I didn't trust the other lady and could not understand why she would be following me. The helper lady began speaking to my new benefactress and the rapid Chinese conversation made me feel like there was a new conspiracy afoot but perhaps I am too suspicious. As we pulled into the Yangdi station I got off the bus following the woman who spoke english and was once again followed by my stalker. The woman who had let me follow her now seemed to want to get rid of me so I thanked her and headed out purposefully towards the pier.

Now Yangdi is just a small little village whose primary source of income seems to revolve around the transport of tourists down the scenic Li river to XingPing village. In and around the pier area there are a multitude of business minded people (mainly women) who are trying to sell snacks, plastic water guns, umbrellas, flowered wreath hats and other items they might tempt the many Chinese tourists with. Now not too many Westerners opt for this method of seeing the Li unless they are part of a large organized tour group. I decided to do a quick reconnescence of the area to try to figure out the best method of securing transport down the river. As I walked to the pier my stalker remained on my tail and tried to engage me in conversation.

"You want Bamboo boat? I get you bamboo boat."
"No, bu shur," No thanks, I responded politely and tried to walk away. I headed into a small store and bought a never melting lolly, but as I came out there she was.

"You go Xingping, I get good price for boat."
"No." Less polite now.

I hurriedly walked back down to the pier but she kept up the pace and was hot on my heals. I stopped abruptly forcing her to skid to a stop.

"You want Bamboo?" Seriously, I was going to need to be direct. I extracted a one half yuan note from my wallet, pointed at her and said, "You tried to cheat me," while pointing at the note.
"I don't trust you." I strode purposefully away down the pier and I thought I had finally gotten rid of her. But no, she should at least get an A for tenaciousness. She followed me down the pier and tried to convince me that I was confused. She pulled out a one half yuan and began explaining what it is worth.

"I know what it is worth now please leave me alone."
Desperate, she began yelling, "We go shopping. Come on. We go shopping." Really not sure what the point of this was but I was becoming seriously annoyed now as I only wanted to figure out how to get a boat and this woman was getting in my way.

I stopped abruptly, pulled out my iPhone and typed "Please leave me alone and go away!" Even when I am angry I feel the need to be polite in a foreign country!

Finally, with a deflated look she said, "Okay."

My rescuers.

Instantly, the other piranhas on the pier seemed to sense that I was now open game and I was surrounded by a group trying to get my business. Just then a tall young man and his mother approached and asked in very good english if I needed help. Cheng Cheng and his mother more than made up for the stalker. They had already booked a boat and said I could join them. They had paid 130 Yuan but their "lady" wanted to charge me 200. In China, there is one price for Chinese people and another for Westerners. I managed to get her down to 150 after much negotiation. Cheng Cheng told me that she said that the pier people were competing for my business and he aptly commented that they were like tigers and I was the sheep they were hunting.

I joined my new friends for a beautiful afternoon on the Li River. My companions were on vacation from Shanghai. Cheng Cheng had just graduated university and was due to start his first job soon and his mother was a teacher. They translated the guide's descriptions of some of the beautiful scenic spots and when we arrived in Xingping they insisted on buying me lunch. They walked me to the bus station where they safely put me aboard a direct bus back to Guilin.

I have met many wonderful people on this journey but these two were amazing, kind, funny, and generous! Today will be a highlight of my trip because of the wonderful people I have met, the tenacious people I have met, and the stunning landscape.

Since I am not a very poetic writer, I think that only pictures of the Li River will do this part of China justice.

Li River

Bought a snack along the journey from this local woman.

Purchased polished stones from this woman to make necklaces.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You're Late!

Li River in Guilin

My hostel in Guilin
I decided to come to Guilin in Guandxi Province because it is famous for its beautiful scenery and I have spent so much of my time in China in large cities. I had prearranged a driver with my hotel and once again my smugness was my downfall. I was the first passenger through the door since I like to travel light and only had a carry on. It was one in the morning and I was looking forward to making it to my bed as I scanned the area for a person holding a sign with my name....alas, no Terry Leverton sign. There were plenty of Taxis and I probably should have just taken one but I had not prepared for this so I did not have the name of the hotel or address in Chinese. Glumly, I watched the other passengers depart and happily be collected, while I stood shifting and thinking that maybe someone had my name written in English. After about half an hour I approached one man who was holding a sign that said Laurie Robinson and said, "Lakeside Inn?" I knew it was a long shot but since this was the only Western name I saw I was wildly hoping someone made a mistake with the name. He shook his head and motioned that he would call my hotel. I quickly found the phone number and watched as he dialed. He handed me the phone and I spoke to someone from the hotel that had obviously just woken up. I tried to tell her I would take a taxi but she seemed to want me to wait. She spoke to the man with the Laurie sign and then he indicated that I should wait. Now the worst thing about being helped by someone who does not speak English is that you have no idea what, if anything, has been arranged. Laurie arrived and just then I saw a disheveled looking man run in with a sign saying Terry Leverton. Finally, a driver. I hastily motioned to my Good Samaritan that this was my driver and hurried towards him while making the international "you're late" motion by pointing at my wrist.

Finally arrived at my destination and as I walked in there was Laurie standing at the reception desk! We were both staying at the same three room hostel!

Me outside my hostel.


Bei Hai Park and the Summer Palace

Random people wanting a photo with the foreigner!

On my last evening in Beijing I decided to take a walk through Bei Hai park which was recommended by one of the students in Nantong. Situated in the middle of Beijing this expansive area is basically two areas. The first is a beautiful park surrounding a lake with numerous walking paths and gardens. The park was very busy with many people out for a stroll. I sat on a bench for a while, people watching. One woman strode purposefully while loudly clapping her hands. A gentleman was following her but I am not sure if they were together or not. I made a mental note to look up this practice of loud clapping as I noticed others doing something similar with variations. Some of the strollers were clapping their chest or underarms. I assumed that this ritual has some meaning or else I had stumbled upon a park frequented by persons that have issues.

Beijing's version of the hot dog cart!
Another section of this area is a bustling nightlife area filled with bars, restaurants and people. I had a quick stroll around but being exhausted from my marathon hike on the Wall earlier, I opted to make an early night of it and head back to my hostel.
I slept in for the first time on this little adventure to China and decided to spend my last day visiting the Summer Palace. After a rather lengthy subway ride I exited the station somewhat disoriented. It is often difficult to determine the direction in which to travel when exiting an underground so I followed the crowd down a very busy street filled with every variety of "hot dog cart"  imaginable. Everything from peaches to cantaloup on a stick to roasted corn is available. Deciding to test my gastronomic constitution I purchased a wrappy thing with egg and what looked like a hot dog. Quite a delicious little snack.

The Summer Palace is an expansive park area surrounding
Summer Palace, Beijing, China
a lake with many restored buildings. To reach the Buddhist Pagoda I was once again faced with an endless set of stairs! Now I know why the Chinese are so slender - it's not the food, it's the damned stairs! The Palace was filled with many tourists and since seeing a white foreigner is still somewhat of a novelty to many Chinese, I was quite a celebrity with many children staring and others wanting to take a picture with me.
Everywhere I have visited in China there are the recycle people. Now I'm pretty sure that these individuals are not exactly hired as they are usually the very elderly and usually women. They roam the streets, parks, and tourist sites armed with a bag or basket and a pair of tongs. They sift through the garbage and walk the street and pick out water bottles from where-ever they have been deposited.
Recycle Lady
These people are everywhere. They seem to be lurking and hiding all around because as soon as you place a bottle into the recycle bin then they miraculously appear, snatch it out and deposit it into their container. As I strolled along the lakeside I noticed one of these women and handed her my freshly emptied water bottle. Now usually, I am quite sensitive about snapping photos of people and I could have pretended to take a scene shot and then zoom in on this woman at her work, but instead I made the international hand gestures for photo and pointed at her. She nodded and quickly smiled and posed for me. I managed to snap one picture and was about to snap another when a very loud angry gentleman waved his hand in front of my phone and began yelling at me. I can only surmise that he felt I was being impolite or else he does not want foreigners to know that the elderly in China need to work by collecting bottles. I said sorry and moved on before he grabbed my phone. When a large Chinese man yells at you with his arms waving it can be quite intimidating!

Best drink ever! Cold yoghurt in a glass bottle. Famous Beijing drink.

I finished my last day by revisiting Tiananmen Square and Mao's Tomb. Paying 15 yuan, needing to check in my knapsack (and therefore stuff every available pocket with my important items - money, passport, iPad, iPhone, credit cards), and undergoing a very thorough pat down by security, was really not worth the visit. Ended the day at Bei Hai park where I treated myself to some Beijing Duck before collecting my bag and heading to the airport.

North Gate 
I was at the airport early and sat at my assigned departure gate working on my iPad while smugly congratulating myself on successfully making it this far on my trip without any major problems. The waiting area had steadily filled and occasionally I would hear an announcement in Chinese followed by English. I continued to work away and assumed I would hear an announcement to board. At one point I noticed many people standing and hurriedly leaving the area. I started to become concerned when I saw that almost the entire area had cleared out so I quickly packed up my knapsack and headed to the desk where I was told that the Gate had been changed. The announcement had been made in Chinese but not English! Next came my mad dash with my wheely backpack to what seemed to be the other side of the airport. They were just finishing up with the boarding as I arrived. As I took my seat I mentally made a note that it is important to not become too smug and to stay alert!