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Monday, February 25, 2008

Shanghai, Nanjing & back home

Shanghai is a cool place!!!

The very first impression of Shanghai is that it is an amazing city. The metro works perfectly, it looks clean, people seem to be more "civilized" than in Kunming and it just gave us a good feeling. Our hostel was right on People's Square, very conveniently located near a metro stop. The first day we visited the China town in Shanghai (doesn't that sound great...). Nothing special, just some brand new old-style houses and an awful lot of Chinese tourists that buy the flimsy and way too expensive souvenirs that are for sale in the hundreds of stores :-)
After that we walked to Pudong, the island of Shanghai where all the skyscrapers are located. Prices for real estate are incredibly high around there as we found out after some window shopping at several real estate agencies. But the sights are great. Beautiful, huge buildings and very luxurious residential areas. Not good for your wallet, but pleasant enough to walk around. Right across the water from these skyscrapers is the boulevard known as the The Bund, old buildings dating back to the period of the English occupation of Shanghai. Quite a contrast!
The next day we had our most Western outing we ever had in China: we went to the Ikea!!! Of course we had the hotdogs with unlimited soda (5 RMB, single hotdog 3 RMB) as breakfast before we actually entered the store. The stuff at Ikea in China is almost identical to the things they have in Dutch Ikeas, so that wasn't very special. The best part of the visit was the lunch (Swedish meatballs of course...). Watching Chinese people trying to eat Western food is awesome. Scoping up an entire schnitzel with their fork, biting a piece off and putting the schnitzel back on their plate. Or they lift up a chicken wing, put it entirely in their mouths, slowly chew off the meat while the bone sticks out of their mouth and then spitting it back out on their fork... haha, great times! After that Shos found an H&M and went on a shopping spree and we concluded the night with a good, authentic Shanghainese meal in a restaurant recommended by the care taker of a public toilet :-)
The last day we went to the Shanghai Museum, a four story building dedicated to Chinese historical art. Although interesting, it was too much of the same and couldn't keep me inspired for too long. In the afternoon we took a train to Nanjing where we arrived at around 20.00, just in time to join the festivities of the Lantern Festival (15 days after Chinese New Year). The streets were crowded with people walking around, buying food and little things such as balloons or glow-in-the-dark devil ears... And it was actually arranged very well. The police blocked several streets, turning them into one-way streets, forcing people to follow the crowds and walk around in loops instead of running into each other! Good Job Nanjing!!!

The next day we went to Sun Yat-Sen's mausoleum located in a nature park on a mountain just east of town. And here Shos and I realized that we have been to too many Chinese sights, temples and parks... although it was pretty nice to see and read about the things Sun Yat-Sen has done, it was too Chinese in a way that most of it was glorified and made to look like the Communist Party and Sun Yat-Sen agreed on "everything". No big deal, but very, very, very Chinese ;-)
And Saturday we flew back. So now we're back in Kunming, cleaning our apartment, enjoying Yunanese food and seeing our friends again. This week I also start working again and start Chinese classes! More on that the next time!


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Back in China: Xiamen & Hangzhou

Amazing differences between the East and West of China...

In Bangkok nothing special happened. The only real fun thing we did was paying a visit to a restaurant called "Tony Roma's" (sounds like a pizza joint, but is a ribs and steak place). According to my sister they have the best ribs ever there, so of course I had to try. And I must say that they were delicious. The rest of the night my stomach was a little upset, not because the food was bad but probably because I'm not used to eating those amounts of meat anymore ;-) But is was definitely worth the "splurge"!!!
On Wednesday we flew back to China, Xiamen to be precise. Before we took off a flight crew member informed us that there was an accident with our bag: a bottle of whisky had been broken... Nothing we could do about it at that time, but we were wondering how bad it would be. It took AirAsia over three hours to get us to Xiamen and when we arrived we were unpleasantly "surprised" that not one, but both our bottles of Laos Tiger Whisky were broken. The entire bag including its contents smelled like whisky. After some arguing with the ground personnel of the airport we agreed to a 100RMB compensation for laundry (doesn't seem like much, but it covers expenses in China).
And the other "surprise" might even have been worse: it was f*$#ing COLD!!! We were used to approx. 30 degrees (Celsius that is) for over a month and in Xiamen it was a mere 5 degrees... We took buses to the train station to secure a sleeper ticket to Hangzhou for Friday and then needed to find a place to crash for the night (it was already 22.30). We ended up in some Chinese lady's apartment that had been converted into a cheap hotel. Kind of sketchy, but it got us through the first night with only "minor" disturbances ;-)
The second day we switched hotel and explores Xiamen. The cool thing about Xiamen is that we both thought it was an updated version of Kunming. Not too big, some really nice places to hang out, still that real Chinese touch, but way more modern! Most of that day we spent trying to buy plane tickets back to Kunming (which is a little harder than in Western countries, especially when you wan to do it online) and checking out the university area. The last day we made a trip to Gulangyu, an island 3 minutes away from the mainland. The cool thing is that there are no cars on the island and it has beaches!!! Seriously a nice place to spend a day. At 22.14 our night train to Hangzhou departed and we said goodbye to Xiamen.
Hangzhou is a lot bigger than Kunming and/or Xiamen. It also seemed to be a lot more modern than either of those. Supposedly it is a big tourist attraction for Chinese because of the "original" West Lake can be found here. And it has to be said: the lake and its surroundings are beautiful. The downside of being there at this time of the year: it is cold!! At several places you could still see piles of snow... In the afternoon we visited Julia, who we met in Laos. After a great home cooked meal and lots of talking we went back to our hostel, watched a movie and called it the night. The next day we took an "early" train to Shanghai and not just any train, but one of the new "bullet trains". They are a big improvement from the traditional trains here, but to call them bullet trains... The highest speed we reached was 171 km/h, nice but not that exciting.

More about Shanghai in the next post. However the first impressions can be given relatively quickly: awesome city!!!
Just a few more days of traveling around and then we'll be back home in Kunming!

Groetjes uit Oost-China,
Ruudje en Shos

Friday, February 15, 2008


Nice people, decent food, great country side and so on...
Too bad they have such a stupid government!!!

Sorry for the delay in updating the blog, but I was unable to add pictures in Myanmar so I decided to wait a couple of more days. The trip was great. After an uneventful flight I arrived in a very wet Yangon. During the flight I met Tim, an American student, who had exactly the same time as me to spend in Myanmar, so we decided to travel together. At the airport we took a taxi into town (paid for by Tim in US$) in order to exchange money.
And that right away is the most irritating thing about traveling in Myanmar, the money!!! The official banks only exchange foreign currency for terrible rates (i.e. 1 US$ = 400 Kyats), so you have to deal with people on the street and markets (a rate of approx. 1200-1250 Kyats per US$). Besides being plain sketchy, Burmese people only accept crisp new bills. No stains, folds, little tears or anything... Tourist fees (like the US$ 10 to enter Bagan) have to be paid in these new US$ bills as well and it seems that when you want to pay in Kyats they use a random and ridiculous exchange rate!
Oh well, after getting annoyed by that a couple of times you just accept it as one of the flaws of country dictated by a bunch of assholes in a hidden, "secret" government city.

Then the good things :-) The highlight for me was the three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Tim, I and a French guy called Michael hired a guide for three days to take us via a bunch of villages to the lake. The guide (called Kyi), a chef (called Chef, for our food), all the food and the accomodation for US$ 8 pppd. The hike was great, the people we met were amazing and the weather was optimal (maybe even a little hot). No more talking about it, just take a look at the pictures!

After the hike and trip over the lake, we were supposed to be picked up by a bus. But that bus thought we were somewhere elso so totally skipped us :-( A few "stressful" moments, a couple of phone calls and a 45 minute taxi ride we caught our bus after all. It simply waited for us :-)

That bus took us to Mandalay. A decent, small city that has a lot of history to offer but in itself is not that spectacular. I spent one day walking around the city and together with Michael hired bicycles the next day to go to some towns around Mandalay. We visited Saiging Hill and Amarapura, where they have world's longest teak wood bridge. Sounds great, but is also more a tourist thing than anything else.

Not that Mandalay was bad, but I was really looking forward to go to the temples of Bagan. The slow boat went on the wrong days and the tourist boat was a rip-off, so I took a bus. A very long, bumpy and hot 10 hour bus ride later I arrived in Nyuang U, the town where many backpackers stay when they visit Bagan. Bagan... well, to be honest, it did not fulfill my expectations. It is an amazing sight when you stand on top of a temple and all you can see is a plain with nothing but more temples, but that is it... Not as impressive as Angkor, because the temples are way smaller. And all of the smaller temples look alike. But probably I am also a little spoiled when it comes to temples, so that adds to my not being too enthousiastic about Bagan.

After Bagan it was time to head back to Yangon. After one whole day of sightseeing I was glad I did not have to stay there any longer. Big city, few places of interest, so only worth a short stay.

Myanmar is great and I would not mind going back there, especially to the less traveled parts. The people are amazingly friendly and it is incredibly cheap (US$ 2-7 for a single room with good breakfast). Totally worth another visit and I would recommend it to everyone. On Tuesday I flew back to Shoshannah in Bangkok, but more on that and our China trip will follow soon!!!