31 October 2009

Vietnam, first toughts

So far we are happy with Vietnam.

First comparisons with China: there are much less people, they are poorer and there is a much smaller amount of rich people (mainly counting the cars and their sizes).

Then things that made us "happy" - people understand a "no, thanks" and leave us; people do not scream to each other while chatting.

Also, I find Vietnam cities much more bearable than Chinese. Probably due to the french influence, roads are much narrower; There is a huge bunch of motorcycles and is almost impossible to walk on the sidewalk full of parked motorbikes, food sellers and people eating in improvised canteens (with kindergarten sized plastic tables and chairs). But walking on the road is ok, once you trust the motorbikes and bicycles will not hit you.

We are now in Hue, which was once an imperial city. It is very green with many parks surrounding the river with small terraces with local people drinking coffee or juices. There is a 'citadel', where the emperors used to live which was done by the same architect as the Beijing's forbidden city. Here fortunately there were very few tourists and no screaming Chinese tour guides, so we could stroll and enjoy the peaceful place for couple hours.

The trains so far have been nice, no more people than places and with delays not bigger than 10minutes. They are old and slow (average of 50km/h) but the soft seats are comfortable and they serve nice food on board. The only annoying part are the televisions a bit laud, but still acceptable.

26 October 2009

Small world outside

On our way to the Hanoi train station we listen someone from the other side of the street: "Miguel". We stop and looked. "It's Ray, from couchsurfing."

After scratching the eyes to make sure, go around the motorbikes to cross the street and yes... it was Ray, from Singapore, who we hosted in Geneva last Christmas! Just there, on the other side of the street of old town Hanoi.

It was our plan since the beginning to give him back the Transiberian book he gave us last year, while making him a visit in Singapore. Few days ago I had even written him on the couchsurfing website. And now we made more sure we will meet again in a couple months at his place.

Already during this trip we "surfed" in Omsk, Russia with the same person which Ray had "surfed" with. Small world...

Last pictures of China

Some ducks going alive to the market in Yongshuo.

Dentist offices facing the street...
The karsts that are represented in the 20yuen banknote (near Yangshuo).

Petrol station for the river boats.

Hanging the laundry in the tree (view from the bus window).

Chinese prisons... sorry, apartments. (we saw couple times warnings from the police saying to put bars on windows for security. Many people did and now really leaves behind the bars.)

Chinese uniform people standard pose #1.

China - Episode 2

From the centre of Hong Kong, we took the metro to the last station one rainy morning, and crossed the border to Shenzhen. At the train station we had to queue a bit - we could have bought our ticket in Hong Kong, but for a ridiculously high commission. Getting our sleeper tickets in Shenzhen was as easy as it gets in China - a bit of queueing but that was it. Shenzhen is one of the "Special Economic Zones" in China, so probably a bit better off economically than other cities, although our guidebook mentioned that there was quite a lot of poverty. There's not much to see there, so we sat around in a Chinese fast food outlet before spending much of the rest of the afternoon at McDonalds, which was the only place where we could get decent coffee. The train station was less of a mess than other Chinese train stations, so everything went easily and fast.
We arrived in Guilin in the early morning. We had chosen to go there because it was supposed to be one of the top tourist sights in the country, surrounded by beautiful karst scenery.
Well, we were not as impressed as our guidebook. The city was ok, with some nice places to walk around, a good amount of cafes and restaurants and outdoor seating, but that was about it. Many places were full of Chinese tourist groups, with tour guides yelling into megaphones. We rented bikes and cycled out into the countryside - fortunately there were enough helpful people around to help us find our way. The air was dusty and polluted, but we did find some nice spots with rice fields. Miguel's bike chain was coming out all the time so he went around with his hands all black...
After 2 days we had enough and took a bus to Yangshuo. Already at our hostel in Guilin we were reminded of the many tourist scams in Yangshuo, like taxi drivers taking tourists to the wrong hotel.
Nothing like this happened to us. We got off the bus, a few people wanted to take us to their hotel but we said no and walked away, and they left us alone. We checked into a quiet hotel with an adorable manager, it was cheaper than most places we had stayed, but it was clean, it had a window that opened and a comfortable bed. Perfect. The town was, yes, touristic, but it seemed more like individual tourists and less groups. It was also much more quiet than Guilin, and after arriving we walked along the river on a quiet path and got some really nice views (photos coming later...). We spent the next day walking along the river from one village to another, again a lot of nice views. Fortunately we met a guy from Hong Kong who helped us negotiate with the boatmen who had to take us across the river (and wanted to get as much money as possible...). Along the way we were regularly greeted by "Hello! You! Bamboo!" (meaning "I want you to take my bamboo raft") but we managed to just ignore them and walk on.
We could have spent much more time in this place, but we felt like moving on. I felt we were going to fall into the trap of running after tourist spots, and not following a certain line or path any more. So we decided to get back on the trains and stick to them as long as possible, and try to ignore other travellers' advices ("oh you MUST go to X, and DON'T miss Y") because I don't see a sense in "collecting" tourist spots all over the world for months and months.
So we took a bus to Nanning, from where we knew there would be a train to Hanoi. Nanning is quite a modern city with lots of modern architecture everywhere and lots of shops, but not a lot to do otherwise. We were lucky having found a nice place to stay at an Australian couchsurfer's place, which became a "home away from home" for 4 days.
We boarded the night train to Hanoi on Friday night, the train station was full and noisy and a mess as usual, but our train (at least the overnight part of it) was almost empty, we were 12 passengers travelling to Vietnam, and 9 conductors! The border crossings were easy and people were friendly.
We arrived in Hanoi at 5.30 am local time, waited at the train station for 15 minutes for the sun to rise, and walked into the centre. Already at 6 am the city was awake, people doing exercise, alone or, more commonly, in a group, and it was a young jogger who showed us the way into the centre.
So here we are, on the trains again. The plan is to go all the way down to Singapore, using trains as much as possible.

24 October 2009

Border crossing - China-Vietnam

Eva already wrote: we were 12 passengers and 9 conductors on the train which crossed the border that night.

When we boarded the train in Nanning there were some other wagons which were full, but they were heading just to the station before the Chinese border.

On night trains often they request the passports at beginning. It was no exception. But after few minutes the conductor comes with the passports in hand: "whats your countries?". Not first time in China we get this question. "Putayia", I say. "Germany", says Eva (her passport says "Deutschland").

Arrived to ther border station two police officers come inside to give the "departure cards" which we already had and a few minutes later come to check the passports and take them away. They new the countries. After, we are requested to leave the train with all the luggage. On the building of the station, first the thermometer test, then the luggage x-ray. After the conductors came, do only the x-ray check and inform us that our wagon have a problem with the air conditioned and we will move to another one. Back to the train and soon the police returns with the passports. Now we "just" have to way 1-hour so the train leaves on the schedule.

Hour and half after we arrive to the Vietnamese border station. Requested to go out, we see a nice old yellow building besides the train going to Beijing that night. It is 23:30 (0:30 chinese time). Inside the building first counter on the left two persons distributing two pieces of paper. One for immigration and customs, other for health check. After filling them, we are pointed to the second counter, where 4 officers receive one form and the passport. They ask Eva which country she is from. I find bizarre they did not ask me. I found way the day after. Then they point to the other side of the station, where in a third counter we should give the other paper. This guy, almost sleeping, receives the health check and shows that we should pay 2000dong or 1yuen (20euro cents). Fortunately we saved some chinese money. After some minutes the officers call our names and return the passports.

There was still a fourth counter, to buy train tickets, where someone was sleeping. Back to the train and it was our turn to sleep (while the train stayed still for 30 minutes before leaving).

Why the Vietnamese officers knew Portugal? In Hanoi at the hotel the clerk told me there was a football player in some portuguese team.

22 October 2009

Train tracks

budapest001, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

Tomorrow night we return to the train tracks on the way to Hanoi, Vietnam. The new aim of the trip, as now going East is not so easy, it to go to Singapore using whenever possible the train.

(picture taken from the Budapest-Krakaw train in April 2009)

20 October 2009

Bus broke down stop

Bus broke down stop, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

On the trip between Litang and Shangri-la the bus refuse to work for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the driver with help of some passengers moved petrol from one tank to another and did some other things in the inside of the bus to pump manually the petrol. There was no phone coverage in this part of the mountain, somewhere around 3500m, it was raining a bit and the tires sometimes were not adhering to the mud of the road. But we arrived at the end.

Why Hong Kong is not China

First and most important reason why Hong Kong is not China: You have to pass immigration. You officialy leave China (that's why we needed a double-entry visa) and get a Hong Kong stamp. The traffic is left-sided. The buses don't look like they're going to fall apart any minute, and their exhaust fumes don't smell like they could kill you instantly. There's no grey and thick smog covering the sun. The bus drivers are not criminals trying to kill a whole busload of passengers at the same time by crashing head-on into a truck. The streets are reasonably clean (well, then everybody is reminded at every street corner to "keep the city clean"). There's no smell of rotting water and humidity everywhere. Kids don't shit on the street. People are allowed to gather in big numbers in parks for picknicks, for example for the Lantern Festival. Everybody can express his or her opinion. Journalists are allowed to write critical articles in the newspapers (for example, about the 60th anniversary of the PRC). You can buy international newspapers and magazines. You can watch interesting news on TV and access every webpage you want without feeling like a criminal. There's a reasonably transparent political system and a judiciary system that respects human rights. Hong Kong hospitals are among the best in the world and healthcare is accessible to everybody.

Hong Kong is not China, and will, in my view, probably never be. How could you replace a democratic system that respects human rights with what there is in China at the moment? Hong Kong would loose too much, economically and politically.

Night Train Philosophies - Shenzhen to Guilin

After hanging around at Mc Donalds for half of the afternoon, we boarded our night train in the early evening in Shenzhen, a Chinese city close to Hong Kong. We shared our compartment with a Chinese man who fell asleep very early, so we didn't make much noise, did a bit of reading and then also decided to have an early night. I had just about managed to fall asleep and was in the kind of bizarre dream that one has on trains, when I was woken by a ringing mobile phone. It was our neighbour's. It was just before midnight. When he finally replied he talked very loudly on the phone, making no effort whatsoever not to wake us up. This went on for some time, he did regular phone calls without bothering to leave the compartment. Around half past one in the night, the train stopped and our neighbour got off, leaving his reading lamp on. Miguel finally turned it off, and the rest of the night was quiet. As I'm usually unable to sleep in any moving object, like planes, buses and trains, I spent the rest of the night lying on my back and thinking about what had just happened. The guy looked nice enough, probably a businessman. He surely didn't have any bad intentions when waking us up with his phone calls and when leaving on the light. He probably just didn't think about it. And that's just the point. This is something so typical in China. Call it cultural difference or whatever you want. The result: People smoking in front of a non smoking sign and blowing the smoke in other people's face, talking loudly on the phone in every possible situation, leaving their cigarette butts in the washbasin for somebody else to clean, pushing and shoving to get into a train where they have reserved seats anyway, letting an empty water bottle drop on the floor the instant they've finished drinking it. Nobody ever complains about anything, although you can sometimes see in people's expressions that they are annoyed by, say, the cigarette smoke. We westerners get an impression of a serious lack of consideration of others, a "not-giving-a-sh**-about-others", and no sense of community. If I dirty the public toilet or throw my garbage on the floor, somebody will clean it (but this somebody probably hasn't chosen his or her job and we could do just a little effort to make his or her job less disgusting). I've been trying to find an explanation to this, and I've got a theory that might explain at least part of it. Our western world is heavily influenced by Christan thought, whether we believe in God or not. The basis of Christianity is taking care of others, not do to others what you wouldn't have done to yourself, not take revenge. Of course, I'm not talking about the less than glorious doings of the Christian church all around the world, but rather the basis of Christian thinking, that is again reflected in western philosophies like Humanism. In practice, this means that we have all more or less been brought up to be considerate to others, don''t hit your little friend and be generally nice to others, even if you don't know them, so we try to keep our trains clean, stop to let people cross the road and offer our bus seat to the granny or the mother-to-be. Christian sects and other communities have a huge success in many parts of the world (including Asia) because they often promote the community aspect - singing together, dancing together, praying together. China's religion and philosophy have been heavily influenced by Confucius. In Confucianism, there are precise rules concerning the relationship between people: the son pays respect to his father, the wife to her husband, the employee to his employer. Relationships between people who don't know each other (the "community") don't play any role. Even Buddhism is more like an "individualist" religion: to attain "enlightenment" you have to do the work all by yourself, by mediating and leading a "pure life". For me, there's not much room for a community spirit in there. And that's how I explain (at least part of) this behaviour of what I call egocentrism and individualism. I do what is just right for me, without thinking any further. (As I am writing this, the guy next to me at the internet place has just lighted a cigarette, about half a metre from my face, with ash blowing on my computer mouse. I'm delighted.) You might tell me now that this is just the way they are and that I can't change the world and just have to accept different cultures. Well, I'm having a lot of trouble accepting behaviour like not stopping your car to let cross a mother carrying a small child on her arms, or other examples that are everyday scenes in China. Maybe it sort of scares me, a nation so individualistic and egocentric. It's so far away from my own convictions. It also means that we can do all we want to protect the environment, but if China continues polluting without any consideration, we will be close to a natural catastrophe in a couple of decades.

By the way, we discussed this topic with our Australian host last night. She has been living in China for 10 years but still hasn't found a good explanation for all this.

We got off our train in Guilin at 7 in the morning. After shaking off the taxi drivers and map-sellers, we walked towards the city center, loudly spitting men everywhere, smelling again the constant stink that is part of Chinese cities, and then along the modern and slick pedestrian street that was just waking up. There, we saw a couple with a child maybe 2 or 3 years old, who was just doing his business (big one) right on the pavement in the pedestrian street, his father hurrying around with a roll of toilet paper. I don't know for sure but I can imagine they didn't pick up the "business". Welcome back to China.

I need to leave this country, I can't take it any longer.

16 October 2009

Back to China

We had excellent time in HongKong, receiving the visit of Anne-Laure from Geneva for four days, during which we went to Macau to eat bacalhau in the "Castico", we swim in nice beaches in Lamma island (where we were staying), went to the Peak. Also in HK we visited the very nice HK History museum (highly recommended) and Science museum, saw twice the light show in the harbour, picnic with a lot of Chinese in the Victoria park during the mid-autumn festival. The first few days in HK we couchsurf with Sebastien, living in a 22nd floor over Central, just 10minutes from the mid-levels escalators. In Kawloon we checked out the birds and flower market, I showed Chunking and Mirador mansions to Eva and Anne-Laure. For those who don't know HK, it is a great place to visit. Loads of things to do. Before hand I recommend to see the Chunking Express movie from Wong Kar-Wai. Ah, yes, we also saw "Abre los ojos" movie from Amenabar and I got my third hair-cut during this trip in a "10-minutes cut-only" express barber shop (we have seen them already in Japan).

Now we are back to China (I could repeat the same things about the country from all the last posts, but I spare you) and soon we will go to Nanning to get our Vietnam visas.

12 October 2009

Fire safety in China

Fire safety, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

In Pingyao the fire safety equipment is still quite old...

Check the buckets (with water) and the shovels on the wall. They are the only fire combat items they had available in the city everywhere.

10 October 2009

Pieces of magic

anjo-26nov 004, originally uploaded by miguelanjo.

In HK we did one more science museum. They are a bit the same all over the world but this one included a very nice mirrors compound where we could do some magic. Here I am (at least my head)!

08 October 2009

"Der Weg ist das Ziel" - photos

Put the mouse over the photo to see its title.
Lunch on way to Kanding
Public toilets
Travel with ducks
Solar oven
Water refilling stop
Bus broke down stop
Bus - Lunch restaurant
Bus environment
Monks and monastery in Shangri-la

07 October 2009

"Der Weg ist das Ziel"

When we travelled to Litang in western Sichuan, high up in the mountains, the trips were some of the least comfortable of our whole trip. Imagine spending 8 or 9 hours bumping around in an old bus on a bad road. The back of the bus is occupied by Chinese or Tibetan men who are chain smoking during the whole trip, spitting on the floor of the bus and making a general mess by throwing everything from cigarette butts to plastic wrappings on the floor. In the middle of that, 3 ducks. The bus stops from time to time for toilet (I said it was an old bus, so no toilets inside). When I say toilet, I mean Chinese toilets. Squatting toilets where your business goes into a not very deep hole, and there are no doors, just low walls to separate the several cubicles. Now, everyone who has ever read a guidebook for China knows that the Chinese stare at westerners. It's just that they're curious. Ok, I can cope with it most of the time. But coping with being stared at by every single Chinese woman in those toilets while doing your business needs very strong nerves, and a good sense of humour.

Now, you may ask, why take these horrible buses? Why do such long uncomfortable trips, when we could just take a plane?

Well, that's the point of this post. Without these uncomfortable trips, we would never have seen what we have seen. Beautiful mountains. Traditional houses. People wearing traditional dresses, working in the fields. And it's not set up for the tourists, it's for real. That's how they live, work, travel, shit.

Travelling is about all this. It's about smelly trains (how many of you still know what "human smell" is? Go take a russian train). It's about bumpy buses that break down in the middle of nowhere. About people just doing their everyday life, transporting chickens and all kinds of other goods. Travelling is not about taking airplanes and then say you've been everywhere (that may be "going on holiday". Plane travel is about the most uninspiring way to travel, in my view). And that's why travelling is not always easy, or pleasurable, or "fun". It's an experience, about feeling on your own body how most people in this world still live. It's about getting to know yourself better. Travelling is not just going on a long holiday. Travelling is not running away from yourself, but getting closer to yourself.

What I am taking from this? That I'm able to be happy with very few things that all fit in my small backpack. That every day has something special, be it positive or negative, be it while travelling or when back home in a routine. And also, the day we decide we have arrived somewhere, our trip will be over. Because travelling is not about arriving, it's about moving, be it in a train, boat or bus.

(Inspired by P. Theroux)

30 days in China

During our first month in China, we managed to see and experience a lot of different things. Quite amazing actually, given that distances are huge and not all means of public transport are fast.

First, of course, was Beijing. Thinking back to it now, my feeling is that Beijing is Beijing, but Beijing is not China. At least post-olympics Beiijing. I found it more quiet than other places, more organised maybe. Anyway, we managed to visit some of the tourist spots, like the Forbidden City, which was full of tourists but really beautiful and we did manage to find one or two quiet spots, like this one:
We also saw the Great Wall in Simatai, a less touristic spot than other places, but involving quite an adventurous drive by taxi (see Miguel's post about it). We took an antiquated gondola to shorten the hike uphill and had great views from the top:
Another Beijing highlight was meeting our good friend Anne, with whom we cycled around Beijing for a day and had a Peking duck dinner. It's just so good to see a known face on a long trip like that!

From Beijing we took a night train to Pingyao, a small town with a preserved and still inhabited old town. Having seen other similar places afterwards, I must say that Pingyao is really worth seeing. Wandering about in the morning or evening when the bulk of tourists have left, exploring the side streets, is a great experience. All the old houses are still inhabited, people live and eat on the street, children run around. It might be "dirty" and "smelly" for our western tastes in some places, but that's how people live here.
From Pingyao we went on to Xian, where I suffered a bit from migraines and the horrible air pollution, but we did manage to see the Terracotta Warriors (sorry no picture).
On we went to Chengdu, by night train again, this time in a "soft sleeper" carriage (4 beds per compartment with a door), because we couldn't stand the constant cigarette smell any more in the "hard sleepers". Chengdu seemed even more polluted, it was constantly in a thick gray fog which almost completely hid the taller buildings!
One morning we got up early to go and see the pandas at the Panda Conservation Reserve. Very cute. I could have watched them eating for hours.
Who would think of eating pandas??

Fortunately we had chosen a great hostel, very comfortable to just sit and read and eat and talk to other travellers. Everybody was organizing trips to Tibet... we didn't want the hassle of organising a guide, getting a special authorization and following a fixed guided tour, but instead we decided to go to western Sichuan, escape the cities and also see some tibetan culture. The bus trips were long and tiring and uncomfortable, but we got great views and some insight into the life of a tibetan village. Traditionally dressed people, yaks and pigs in the streets, traditional houses and food... wonderful.
View of Litang, a village at 4014m altitude:
Tibetan women coming back from walking around the monastery:
Washing clothes in the street in Litang:
These friendly people showed us our hiking trail in Kangding:
After this high-altidude adventure we went south into Yunnan province, where we did a 2-day hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge. The weather was great and the views beautiful.
Crossing a stream:
A lot of locals offered rides on beautiful horses, but we preferred to walk...
On our way we met other animal friends (at least he didn't want any money):
And we slept in "Naxi Family Guesthouse", a very welcoming place with nice views, pigs, a little dog, a monkey and a beautiful grandmother. This was their entrance gate:
We then went on to Lijiang, which has a nice old town but unfortunately completely overrun with tourists. We stayed in a nice hostel in a village that was a bit quieter, and spent a couple of relaxing days there before heading to Hongkong.

04 October 2009

Email from an exhibition


Your friend has sent you this digital photo from the Hong Kong Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition Gallery. The photo was taken at the interactive snap shot installation, one of the many exciting and unique multimedia interactive exhibits installated at the Gallery. We look forward to seeing you at our Gallery!

01 October 2009

Six months searching the Next Stop

Six months of traveling, we are near Lijiang, in Yunnan province of Southwest China. Twelve countries crossed: Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China. Thousands of kilometers done mostly by train, some by bus and short escapades by bicycle, foot and kayak. "Do you sometimes feel tired of traveling?", was the question posed by Maria, a Swedish girl we met at the cozy Naxi Family Guesthouse were we slept during the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. Indeed sometimes we feel tired, we miss family and friends, a own house, a routine. This usually happens either after several days changing beds (unpack&pack) every day, or after persistent annoyances like the leaking shower flooding the toilet, the odourful public toilets, strange food, irregular buses, bargaining, traffic, pollution or killer drivers. But at 181 days mark we still want to continue. "A special day", asks the Singapore guy the same night. Eva answers - "The day when we took the 6-hour boat ride from Russia to Japan. Arriving by dirty roads and old bus to a port where even a security guy working there did not know where was the passengers check-in and then boarding on a clean japanese boat where they bowed at our passage and arrive, exactly 6-hours later, to a sparkling village, having cars stopping to let us pass, people saying thank you after each word."

I would add the Couchsurfing experiences, the Buryatia villages and volunteer project. But every single day was special in its way and I believe that, feeling the 'special' of each moment is what makes this trip so important.

Main tips so far - use a small backpack, maximum 35-40 liters; do not book anything before leaving home and... travel.