Friday, July 22, 2016

Xiamen, Fujian - China

Xiamen, like Zhuhai where I reside, is rated as one of China's 'Most livable cities'.  Just across the water from Taiwan, it is a port town with a colourful history of trade and wars. Perhaps, as a result of its proximity to Taiwan, Xiamen seems to be a tricky place for a large group to travel.  The first hostel we organised was initially quite open to a group of 12 foreigners rocking up, however they soon U-turned and we were left with a cheap but pleasant enough AirBnB option.

It was quite a drive from Zhuhai, around 18 hours on the way out and 10 hours on the way back in a fairly cramped minimum owing to the combination of having the most cautious driver in China and traffic.  The company was good and it didn't seem as long as it was.

On the bus to Xiamen

The first bizarre occurrence was finding out that we couldn't just traipse into the hostel together.  Instead we had to be lead in groups of 4 and go different routes. Apparently there are rules about larger groups of foreigners staying in the same place.

Nan Putuo Temple
The first day we rather sleepily visited one of the famous temples close to the campus of Xiamen University.  Now anyone who's visited Asia has probably seen a lot of temples, even so, this one was rather impressive.  There was plenty to see and some great views and open spaces.  This Buddhist sanctuary from the Tang dynasty was a nice soft visit having been up most of the night on a cramped minibus.

Nan Putuo Temple - Xiamen

Nan Putuo Temple - Xiamen

That evening we visited a brewpub wonderfully name 'Fat Fat Beer Horse'.  They had a great range of craft beers and there are some nice nighttime views from the terrace.

Fat Fat Beer Horse Brewpub - Xiamen

Tulou Time
The following day we went to visit some of the famous Fujian 'Tulou', fortified and enclosed circular buildings unique to the Hakka ethnicity.  Now we visited a fair few of them, and I'm guilty of not being able to remember all of the names but some were 'authentic' in that there were very few tourists or stalls, and were more or less Hakka families going about their business in their communities.  They are wonderful structures and supposedly very resilient to natural disasters and attacks.

Tulou - Xiamen

Tulou - Xiamen

Tulou - Xiamen

The most famous residences we visited was the Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster, about 4 hours drive out of Xiamen town.  The hiking and views were very impressive, there are amble opportunities to enjoy the countryside and take some scenic photos.  Inside the cluster itself it is a little touristy with lots of visitors, shops and inevitably... noise.  Even so, just to see the structure of these places is very impressive.  You are free to walk around and the locals seem happy to relax and watch TV or play computer games whilst tourists swarm around their homes!  There is a real sense of community here, there are no haves and have nots, the rooms are more or less the same and responsibilities in the community are allegedly shared.  Took the following information from Wikipedia:

"All rooms were built the same size with the same grade of material, same exterior decoration, same style of windows and doors, and there was no "penthouse' for "higher echelons": a small family owned a vertical set from ground floor to "penthouse" floor, while a larger family would own two or three vertical sets.

Tulous were usually occupied by one large family clan of several generations: some larger tulou had more than one family clan.  Besides the building itself, many facilities such as water wells, ceremonial hall, bathrooms, wash rooms, and weaponry were shared property.  Even the surrounding land and farmland, fruit trees etc. were shared." Sounds idyllic.

Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster - Xiamen 

Excellent views around Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster - Xiamen 

We visited the 5 story tulou called Yuchangluo which has unusual 'zigzag' structure owing to measurement errors during contruction but has still stood strong for over 700 years.  There is a beautiful ancestral hall in the middle of the tulou.  

Yuchangluo - Xiamen

There are plenty more tulou, but in terms of a place to stay if you want to relax and soak up the ambiance of the countryside whilst being close to these natural museums I recommend this place on the left in the picture below.

The Hotel of Qingde

It apparently has a few names but on the card I got it says 'The Hotel of Qingde'.  You're living in an historic building in the countryside that dates back to 1743.   Since visiting, I found this fella who blogged about it in detail he loved it so much.  Definitely my first port of call next time I visit Xiamen.  He includes detailed information about the rooms and contact information/address etc.

Gulangyu Islet
On our final day of the trip we made the much anticipated trip to Gulangyu Islet.  Firstly, could the information about the ferries be more unnecessarily complicated and unclear? I was trawling for recent information about from which port to depart as allegedly foreigners aren't allowed from some, and others only operate at certain times.  China at its worst.  Well let's cut the BS, foreigners need to take the ferry from Dongdu Port near Zhongshan road to Sanquitian Port on the islet itself. You will need your passport and it can be difficult to book in advance, but it's possible, one Chinese ID can book up to 5 tickets and tickets can sell out quite far in advance so it's advised wherever possible.

Gulangyu - Xiamen

Koxingga - Gulangyu - Xiamen

If you check out the reviews on TripAdvisor or other travel communities they are so mixed.  There is talk from people who were there 10 years ago and how much its changed for the worse.  There is talk about overpriced touristy tat and hassle wherever you go and pricewalls wherever you go.  But there is also talk about the beautiful architecture, the relaxed vibe and the great street food.  I guess all are true to some extent.  The island was quite busy when we visited, some parts were more crowded than others but all in all it wasn't unpleasant.  There are plenty of places to explore but as most will tell you, you do need to do a lot of walking if you want to make the most of the place.

Beautiful scenery near the Piano Museum - Gulangyu - Xiamen

Rocking the IC shirt Gulangyu - Xiamen

It's a popular destination for couples wanting to take wedding photos. We saw many small groups tucked down alleyways or up against colonial restaurants snapping away in snazzy clothing.  It's a great place to get a bit lost to be honest.  You can eat your way around, do a bit of a hike or relax on the beach.  There's a lot to see and you can take it at your own pace.  The heat was almost unbearable when we visited in June, so it seemed to make sense to see a few things before seeking some shade and repeating this process.  It's a little pricey, but no more than you would expect from a popular little island with all this history, and there is plenty of competition when it comes to shops and restaurants to stop it from being too ridiculous. There is always a McDonalds for the none too adventurous// penny pinchers.  All in all well worth a visit.

Impressive piano, Gulangyu - Xiamen

Street food - Gulangyu - Xiamen

Street food - Gulangyu - Xiamen

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Yangshuo, Guangxi - China

I've recently returned from my fifth trip to Yangshuo and the Li River in Guangxi province.  I thought I should blog about it!  In the past I've taken overnight buses from Zhuhai, but these are now out of favour it seems.  The the most cost effective options from Zhuhai are by train (from Gongbei Train Station to Guangzhou, about 70 mins, and from Guangzhou to Gulin, approx 3 hours) or bus to Guilin from slightly obscure Shangchong station in Zhuhai which takes about 8 hours.

By far, the best ways to experience the Yangshuo are via bicycle or motorbike.  These can be hired from most hostels.  Even if you're not the most confident rider, it's quite easy to navigate the Yangshuo area where sights to see are spread over a vast area.

If you're short of time, it's not a bad idea to join the dreaded tour group.  You'll follow that flag around town, possibly be forced to wear a cap and there's a good chance you'll be berated in never-ending, nasal rhetoric from your tour guide on the microphone whilst bussing from place to place. But on the bright side you don't have to worry about getting around and can choose the itinerary before you depart.  Tours are often able to save you money as they get the 'real' price or special deals on attractions.  So not only do you have the added convenience of not having to find out where to go you could also avoid getting ripped off in what is one of China's most popular tourist destinations.

Popular places on tours include the following:

Silver Cave - I've been to a few caves in the Yangshuo and this is probably the most impressive.  Well illuminated (although someone once said it reminded them of lighting in a cocktail bar), and quite extensive.  They are definitely worth a visit if on part of a tour and especially if you have a soft spot for caves.

Butterfly Spring - Definitely has a tourist trap feel about the place.  Very nice scenery (but where isn't there nice scenery around Yangshuo), crossing the bridge is quite nice, there is a random ass slide, a culture show which goes down a storm will locals and of course a cave.  Don't get too upset if you miss out.

Water Caves (Mud Caves) - Quite good fun on a rainy day, especially if you are feeling like getting covered in mud and like caves.  In fact if you like caves Yangshuo is looking like a great choice.

Li River Rafting/Cruising - I've done both, and both are great opportunities to get some excellent shots.  However, neither feels like the true natural experience of enjoying the scenery and peace and quiet.  For one, the 'rafting' often involves a motorised bamboo raft, which can be incredibly noisy.  Instead I recommend the bamboo 'drifting' on the Yulong River.  The cruise isn't too bad though, a bit touristy but a good way to get on the river comfortably.  The latest thing is to have your picture taken with cormorant birds which were traditionally used for fishing.   If you are going to do this, I recommend doing it from Xingping old town where you can spot the scenery on the 20RMB note.  There is a nice pagoda on top of a hill which is worth hiking up for the views before you can grab a beer, haggle your fee and enjoy cruising into Yangshuo town.

Yulong River Drifting - This is one of my favourite things to do in Yangshou.  If you get a good driver (captain?) he will punt you along with his wooden stick and not hassle you too much to get your picture taken at one of the floating stands.  If in a tour group you'll undoubtedly not be alone but if you get off the beaten track you can probably find someone to take you down the river for a good price.  This is much more peaceful than the rafting/cruise and great if you have good weather.  Next time I would like to kayak which would be even better!

Can be a little touristy during peak season

Moon Hill - Nice for a photo, never hiked it but spoke to others who said it was so so

Big Banyan Tree - a nice place to spend half an hour but not the end of the world if you miss it.  There is a place here which rents traditional clothes for 10RMB which is fun if you're in a group to get some good shots with some good backdrops.  Be careful as you'll probably find yourself getting your picture snapped by local tourists too!

Longjin Drifting - If you are looking for something a little less cultural and more exciting, you can definitely consider Longjin Drifting.  This is a great activity in all weather and it actually lasts for quite a long time!  You pair up in dingys and the water will channel you down the course.  The route feels safe and there are staff dotted along to help you if you get stuck.

Xingping Old Town - Whilst the town is touristy in the most part, there are some nice old buildings to see.  It's quite nice to haggle for a boat and make your way back to town from here.  This is also home to the view captured on the back of the 20RMB note (tick that box, post it on social media).  I recommend climbing up to Bird's View Pavilion on Karst Peak which although a bit steep in parts (there is a ladder at one point), it is worth it for the breathtaking views on a clear day.

Other places that are worth going in Yangshuo are:

Dreamlike Lijiang Theatre - Often not included on tours owing to its high price tag.  But picture a beautiful lake as a stage and the mountains of the Yangshuo as the stunning backdrop.  Combined with a professionally produced, artistic and varied performance from the hundreds of dancers and actors I would go so far as to say this is unmissable spectacle in a unique setting.  

West Street - This is the place the go out to drink and party after a day of culture.  In the peak seasons it's absolutely crammed full of Chinese tourists and in the low season it's dead and depressing.  There are lots of bars, clubs and places to eat and things to buy.  Tuc Tuc drivers wait around in the early hours to take tourists back to their hotel or hostel.

Stone Village - Yangshuo Putao (Shitoucheng) - One gem my friend Jesse and i came across when biking around was this place.  It's on the tourist map, along with many other things, but you won't hear many people talking about it.  If you like exploring and history, this is like one big climbable exhibit from the Qing Dynasty.  You can go in the stone houses and you may need to ask a local or two in order to get there.

Cycling/motorbiking - This is probably the best thing to do in Yangshuo.  If you can bring yourself to avoid the tourist traps and couldn't care less for caves and rivers just hop on a bike and explore.  Many hotels/hostels rent these out and whilst you can explore much further on a motorbike, you can't beat a bicycle on a stunning day if you just wanna chill.

Ultimately the area is so spread out that there are many beautiful places to be discovered, the above is for those who are looking to find the attractions that are readily available and easy to access. Outside of the peak season you wouldn't need to book in advance, unless you want to stay at one of the renowned hostels or hotels, and you could rent bikes and see where you end up.  In the peak season however things can get busy and even though there are hundreds of hotels and counting, you may struggle to find anywhere decent.  Remember that this is a touristic area and unlike other parts of China, you might get treated like a walking dollar sign.  It is always a good idea to haggle and watch your possessions.  Otherwise just enjoy chatting to visitors from all over China and soak up what the beautiful scenery has to offer.

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