Tuesday, 31 March 2009

3 Gorges Dam Yangzi River Cruise

The next part of our expedition took us on a river boat cruise along the Yangzi river, at 6300 km it’s the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. The river divides China into north and south, our cruise will take us through the 3 Gorges Dam, (the worlds largest), and along the most beautiful part of the river. Our cruise liner was a large vessel containing mostly Chinese tourists, we were the only westerners.

I’ve been really lucky on this tour as I am the only single guy , meaning I’ve been ab le to have a room to myself for the entire trip, everyone else has to share. The room was small and basic , but comfortable. There were rats spotted in a couple of the other guys rooms, but I was again lucky and had no visitors.

We headed off for the 3 Gorges Dam which was a few hours away. This controversial hydro electric dam supplies over 10% of chinas power, at 2 km long and nearly 200 meters high it’s the largest in the world and it was completed in 2004.

A third of the 20 billion yuan cost went on relocating familes who lived along the river who’s homes are now flooded, the water level has risen 80 meters in 5 years and thousands of homes were bombed and removed for the project. Check out the size of the bulldozers.

In the evening we had to rise up the 80 meters from the lower part of the river, through the worlds biggest ship lock to the upper, (dammed) part. This consisted of 5 separate locks one after another and took2 hours to get from the lower to the upper part. The locks are enormous.. Ever seen a canal barge going through a lock? Well this mo fo can handle upto 10 ships at a time.

The evening was spent getting drunk and playing drinking games and cards, this seems to be the most common way of spending the evenings when we’re on a sleeper train or sleeper boat, there is simply nothing else to do. I’ve been incredibly lucky with my groups, I’m the eldest at 33 but there are a few 28, 29 yr olds and I don’t feel out of place. Everyone is getting along really well, it’s a good mix and everyone is decent, and fun loving and we have gelled together as a unit really well. I trust them and although I’m always vigilant and on guard to a certain degree, I feel both accepted and safe in the unit. I wonder sometimes what big brother would make of it all if a fly on the wall was watching the group bond and get to know each other. There is an alpha male, a kiwi called Rob who is mr sports man and mr competitive, but even though he has the status, he’s really easy going and easy to get along with. The two danish guys are 20, they are the party guys anfd have beer for breakfast, they are great fun and a responsible for most of the drinking games.

In the morning we transferred to a smaller boat and cruised through a one of the gorges. As always in China the mornings are cloudy and cold. This day it was really cold. I’m sooo glad a brought my snowboarding jacket.

When we got to the gorge it really was beautiful. We were surrounded by sweeping green mountains on either side, the sun had come out and it was a really stunning setting.

Soon we transferred to an even smaller boat for about 15 people, were traditional boatmen rowed us through an even more beautiful segment of the gorge. The journey was great fun, boatmen sang songs and raced with the other boats.

Back on the cruise ship later the sun was blazing, we took the opportunity to sunbath and watch the scenery. An irish lad called Porrick introduced us to a drinking game called Roxanne. The rules are simple. We play Roxanne by the Police on the ipod and speakers. Every time Sting sings “Roxanne” the boys drink, every time he sings “red light” the girls drink. it’s a sure fire way to get you pissed. We played it about 4 times that afternoon on deck.

The evening was much the same. 15 of us set round a table playing cards and drinking games, it was great fun and everyone was toasted.

The climax of the evening was when we convinced Rob to perform his Haka dance on the deck, (he didn’t take much persuasion).

The cruise ended the next day and we are now chilling out in Yichang. Tomorrow we embark on a 16 hour train journey to Xi-an, home of the terracotta army. Stay tuned.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Biking tours, caving, mudbaths and light shows in Yangsuo - China

We woke early to beging a cycling tour of the region. Our local guide Rose took us on a breathtaking tour of the local mountains, farms, rice paddies and rivers of Yangshuo. I'm starting to run out of adjectives to describe this place but it is probably the most naturally stunning place i've ever been to in the world. The tour was great fun and one of the highlights of the day. You can see by this shot how much fun i'm having.

After lunch at a local farmers house we took a bus to some local water caves, which consists of a 2 mile network of mountain caves inside the limestone casts. Stalegtite and stalegmite everywhere, it was beautiful and interesting but the highlight of the experience was a natural mudbath which we all revelled in for about an hour. Aparently its full of minerals and good for the skin and wellbeing, it was also enormous fun we rolled around in it and took a mudslide into it and then washed outselves off by jumping into a nearby cave pool.

The evenings entertainment was another of the seemingly endless wonderdous experiences i've had on this trip so far. Its the famous Yangshuo lightshow which is basically a vast open air theater set into the mountains overlooking a lake. The lake is the stage and the show consists of over 700, yes.... 700 cast members as they sing, dance and put on an incredible light display involving fire, backlit mountains and hundreds and hundreds of illuminated costumes and boats. I actually had a lump in my throat as I was watching it, the sheer beauty and spectacle of it all was unforgetable. The show was choreographed by the same guy who did the opening ceremony of the bejing olympics. I have many photos, none of which did it justuce, but it was something i'll never forget.

Later today we start the next part of the tour, a 2 day river cruise to the 3 Gorges Dam... will update the blog when I can.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Trains, needles, boats and balloons in China

I have met up with my tour group and began my Chinese adventure. Luck has been on my side as the group consists of 6 couples from England, Ireland, Newzealand Denmark and 2 hot, single, nubile 24 year old blond Norwegian girls.... and me. Nice balance. Everyone is really cool and friendly and definitely feel luck is on my side.
My first sleeper train experience was highly enjoyable. 13 hours from Hong Kong to Yangshuo was passed easily with 6 hours spent in the dining car drinking beer with the boys and playing cards. Shithead seems to be a universal game that everyone knows how to play, the hours flow by. The next 6 hours were spent asleep in a 6 berth sleeper berth. It was small and cramped but I managed to sleep without issue.

Chinese toilets are quite an experience, basically a hole in the ground that both men and women have to squat over precariously. Thankfully so far i’ve only needed to pass a number . Here is an action shot。I‘m not looking forward to a number 2!

Arriving in Yangshuo I was totally surprised. I’ve never heard of it before and had little or no expectations. As it turns out it one of the most naturally breathtaking places on earth, i’ve been totally blown away by what mother nature has supplied this 400sq km area. Hundreds of thousands of the most stunning green limestone mountains dotted around in a random and breathtaking fashion. None of my photos will do it justice, but here is the view from my room...

After breakfast we wandered around to get our bearings and I was struck by how lovely and chilled and beautiful the city is. Tradition styled Chinese buildings interspersed with rivers and stream and tiny bridges, completely surrounded by the limestone mounds in every direction. I was in the mood to try a few new things.. and after a particularly piercing headache brought on by 6 hours of drinking cheap Chinese “liq” beer – I went to a traditional Chinese Acupuncturist to see if she could alleviate my pain. I have to say I don’t think i’ll be trying it again. After she pierced all of my meridian pressure points with 4 inch needles she then proceeded to drive one directly into the source of the pain in between my eyes and twist it. I was then left for 30 mins to “relex”.. it was probably one of the most uncomfortable 30mins of my life.

I walked out of there with an even worse headache and £3 pounds poorer. Well at least I tried it, it was an experience to remember.. and thats what this trip is all about.
The next two hours were spent on a slow river cruise taking in some of the most beautiful scenery my eyes have ever witnessed.

The latter part of the day was the highlight of the trip so far. A British couple and I decided to break away from the rest of the group and embark on a spontaneous hot air balloon ride over the district. For a measly £50 we sailed through the air for a whole hour and darted in and out of this unbelievable countryside. Rising and falling through the limestone mountains in glorious sunshine was an unforgettable memory that I will take with me to my grave.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Adjusting to HK

My internal Sat nav has kicked in. Without having to consult a map, i’ve navigated myself through Kowloon Park, witnessing pink Flamingos and “kung fu corner” and down to the Star Ferry Terminal at the famous Hong Kong harbour. The view is breathtaking, a sprawling mass of skyscrapers set into a mountainous bay reflecting onto the calm blue waters of the harbour. I bought my ticket over to central Hong Kong island, (for about 17p) and enjoyed the stunning views as I crossed over the water, it was 7pm and it was almost night time.
As I strolled through the streets trying to find a vantage point where I could have a beer and take it all in, I had to walk through a long series of interconnected walkways. Sitting all around me were literally, hundreds, perhaps thousands.... of women. For miles and miles and in almost every walkway, park, grassy knoll or area of free space available sat large groups of women. Cardboard boxes, sheets and newspapers had all been gathered to form makeshift picnic areas on the floor. The women were sitting, chatting, eating street food or food brought from home in Tupperware containers. They were playing cards, some were drinking, many were dancing or listening to music, but all were relaxing and having a good time. It really bowled me over, i’ve never seen anything like it before, why so many women just hanging about on the street...?

I noticed a lively looking narrow street that went climbing up into the hills, still in a quest for a cold beer i began climbing the street.. oh fantastic and escalator, wait... another escalator..... hold on...yet another escalator. Hmmm. I had wandered into the Soho area, which as you can imagine is a hive of bars and restaurants and full of people having a good time. The streets go far up into the hills and are all connected by an elaborate system to escalators rising up through the sprawling streets. I went higher and higher in search of the top... i never found it. I must have been on about 40 or 50 escalators up through the streets and I had still only reached the “mid levels”. I darted into a nice looking bar were a friendly barman poured me a large cold beer. I chatted to him for a while, he was Philippino called Mark. He gave me some bearings and told me of a good vantage point. He also enlightened me about the women in the street. Apparently its a weekly phenomena. Every Sunday, all of the women of the service industry gather together for their night off. All the housemaids, kitchen staff, hotel workers and cleaners gather together socially on the streets of Hong Kong to eat, play and relax. Sometimes there are so many that the Police have to close the streets to accommodate them all. He couldn’t explain why they choose to do this instead of be at home with their families... its just the ways its been as long as he can remember. He’s been here 14 years.

After a couple days of wandering around Hong Kong I noticed its much like London in many ways. If you’ve ever sat on the Tube and been the only English person on the carriage, will HK is much the same from the Asian perspective. The streets are filled with Indian, French, English, American, Italian, Spanish and Arab people. Its a complete mixing bowl and I felt i fitted into the mix without raising any eyebrows at all. A westerner’s face is nothing unusual here; there is an enormous ex pat community working in finance or tourism. I feel safe, its easy to blend in and find your way around. I wonder how long that feeling will last as I continue my travels.....

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Arrived in Hong Kong!

After losing a pint of sweat and half my bottom teeth due to excessive perspiring and grinding during my highly stressful drive to Heathrow, I arrived in time. There was miles and miles of traffic jams, and after leaving the house at 2pm, by 4.15pm I was only at Loughton Essex. I had to be at the airport at 4.30.

Scott Collier somehow managed magically navigate past the trouble spot and then drive at mac 10 to get me to T5 at 4.40. I still can't belive we made it.

I've arrived in Hong Kong, and i'm wring this in a cyber cafe overlooking the harboar, with the skyscrapers reaching into the heavens and the lights slowly going on all over town. It 6pm. Its hot, its humid and i'm right in the thick of it. 28degrees it says on one of the many illuminated thermometers on the street outside. I'm about to take the star ferry over to Hong Kong island to take in the skyline in all its neon spendour.

I have no camera as yet.. i'll be sure to get one tomorrow and post some snaps. The first day in my epic journey has been long and eventful, and I haven't even scratched the surface.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Here is my very 1st post yee haa!
I'm about to leave in the next two weeks and i'm bricking it!