Saturday 30 June 2012


So, I’m running slightly behind in my blogging duties. We were actually in Xiamen over a week ago, but I got slightly caught up in having fun and relaxing in Hong Kong and Macau. Now we’re back in China, in Guangzhou to be precise so I’ve got loads to catch up on.

More on that later, what about Xiamen?

Xiamen used to be called Amoy. “Cool,” I thought, “I’ve heard of that.” Then I remembered it’s because I used to buy Amoy soy sauce from Tesco. Nice to be reminded of your own ignorance every so often.

We stayed at the Ibis hotel next to the train station – cheap and functional, but little else to recommend it. Although we were a couple of miles away from the harbour front there was a handy and very cheap (5p each way) bus transit system. The harbour, and Gulangyu island are where you probably want to head to if you’re ever in Xiamen.

Unfortunately for us, it was raining. Being in the tropics in rainy season, it wasn’t unexpected, but we wanted to see Gulangyu in the sunshine so we had to spend our first couple of days just wandering around the harbour, going to the odd museum, eating frogs, and trying the local delicacies: bayberries and garlic yum-yums.

Finally, on our third day the weather broke, so it was off to Gulangyu.


There are no cars allowed on the island so it’s very pleasant to walk around. The architecture is very much influenced by it’s European colonial past.

Gulangyu buildings – could be somewhere in London

Paris in the springtime? Nope, China.

We sauntered around for an hour or two, took some more nice photos of buildings (check the link on the right) and had a spot of lunch. Before getting the ferry back, we wandered along the sea front to see what this bloke was up to.

“Can I help you sir?”

“Just looking, thanks”

We’d have got a bit closer to find out but the local authorities have decided to charge extra for that bit and because we’re on a budget, we declined. If you’re interested, he was some chap called Zheng Chenggong.

That’s about it for Xiamen – worth visiting, but I avoid the rainy season if you can!

Stay tuned for more stories and photos from Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou…

Thursday 21 June 2012


Last week we spent four nights in Hangzhou, a city an hour’s train journey to the south-west of Shanghai. We arrived in the late afternoon at the youth hostel, perfectly located in a quiet pedestrian street just behind the drum tower.

That evening we ventured out to see what was what. The pedestrian street actually turned out to be a collection of pedestrian streets, focussed on the local arts, crafts and like everywhere else in China, tea. It was all very pleasant. Apart from this freaky looking sculpture halfway up.

Hey kids! Come on up…

The temple on the hill was lit up nice though.


There was also, as we discovered on our last night, a long street food market just the other side of the drum tower.

Stinky tofu. Why? WHY?

As tempting as it was I managed once again to resist the barbecued tarantula.

“Insect lollies, get yer insect lollies”

Talking of food, one of the better meals we had included this dish:

Ah, that’s good crack

With a name like that, resistance was futile.

The rest of our time was spent enjoying the beautiful West Lake. It was quite hazy while we were there so the views weren’t perfect but it was very picturesque all the same.

Although it’s only a few miles round the lake, in the heat it’s a bit far to walk, so we decided to hire bikes. Hangzhou has got a great public bike scheme, like the Boris bikes but way cheaper. Two days cycling cost us just 90p!

It was all very relaxing: a bit of cycling…


The odd snack…

At last, something edible on a stick

And all punctuated by some lovely scenery.



Check the photos link on the right for more.

In the evenings, we ate in the local “Gourmet Street” – a line of restaurants serving local Hangzhou cuisine, some of which (including the liver), was really good.

Overall, we really enjoyed Hangzhou, and would happily go back. If you’re ever in Shanghai, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Current location: Hong Kong
Next stop: Macau on 26th June

Monday 18 June 2012

I’ve got a frog in my throat

Followers of Karen on Facebook may already know what the title of this post refers to. For the rest of you, it’s this:


As neither of us speak Mandarin, we picked this dish from the picture on the menu. “Hahaha, I hope it’s not frog,” chortled Karen, as we ordered.

If you look very carefully, at the bottom, you can see toes.

If you’ve ever had frog’s legs, you’ll know what it tastes like, a cross between chicken and fish. Nice, but non-descript. Strangely, the pile of bones at the side of my plate ended up bigger than the original dish.

“I hope one of us doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night and croak,” giggled Karen, on fine form.


Karen, on fine form

You’ll not get any stupid frog puns out of me. I’d never kermit such a crime.

Current Location: Xiamen
Next Stop: Hong Kong, leaving tomorrow

Where am I?

It’s been brought to my attention that some people may be getting confused about where we actually are at the moment. It’s my fault for taking so long to write blog posts I suppose. I can’t help it, I’m a very busy man.

In future, to assist those who crave to know our exact whereabouts, I’ll append each blog like so:

Current Location: Xiamen
Next Stop: Hong Kong, leaving tomorrow

I’ll also make it clearer when I’m writing about past events rather than breaking news.

Talking of which, here’s a photo of a Chinese Bayberry (with iPhone for scale).


On the train from Hangzhou we saw locals eating them by the barrel so we had to try them. They’re initially sour, then quite sweet and very juicy with stone in the middle that needs spitting out. Karen initially said they tasted like vomit but they grew on her. They were pretty good actually!

We followed up this mid-afternoon snack with something sweet.


This turned out to be sugar-coated garlic bread. Not so yummy.

Finally, as promised:

Current Location: Xiamen
Next Stop: Hong Kong, leaving tomorrow

Sunday 17 June 2012

Shanghai part 2

On day 3 in Shanghai (over a week ago, now – I must try to blog quicker), the weather brightened up a little so we set off for the French Concession. Although not quite gay-Paree, the French influence is definitely there to see. Tree-lined boulevards and lanes are dotted with up-market boutiques and there’s even the odd coffee shop. Unfortunately for you lot, we weren’t in the photo-taking mood, so there’s not much eye-candy to show off.

Apart from general pootling, I finally cracked and decided to do something about my iPhone. You might have noticed that the blogs this past week, while not necessarily bang up to date, have at least been more frequent and a touch more… ornate?

The reason is this little chap.


He’s an Acer Aspire One and I picked him up real cheap in one of the cyber-marts near Xujiahui metro station.

Why? Well, after five weeks of trying, I finally realised that the iPhone 4, or more particularly, iOS and a touch screen interface, just doesn’t cut the mustard. It’s fine for the occasional web browse and replying to the odd email, but for anything more serious, it’s just too frustrating. Trust me, there’s nothing more infuriating than losing an hour of blog post because the app crashed and didn’t auto-save properly, or having to wait an hour for picture to upload over a slow Wi-Fi link, unable to do anything else because the bloody OS doesn’t do proper multi-tasking. Add that to the list of other annoyances e.g. not enough storage, crippled web browser etc., and I couldn’t stand it no more.

Anyway, I’m really happy with my new friend, he’s really light and pretty nippy for a netbook. It’s so nice to be using a keyboard again.

So, getting back to the travel blogging, we spent our final day just relaxing around the French concession again. We headed for the Shikumen Open House Museum, a really interesting look at the way Shanghai’ers used to live at the turn of the century. Essentially, they lived in tenements. Most of them have been torn down in favour of newer accommodation, but the area around the museum has been partially preserved and redeveloped. We had a couple of Japanese-priced wheat beers at the local Paulaner Brauhaus – they were really, really good. Good job they were so expensive.

After that we were understandably hungry so we popped into the Thai restaurant round the corner. I didn’t want too much to eat so I ordered the green papaya salad (Karen had Pad Thai). It briefly mentioned on the menu that they could make it less spicy for western palates. “Ha! Western palates, I’m a traveller now, I can take it,” I thought. Who would have believed a green salad could be so painful. It was simultaneously the most excruciating and most delicious meal I’ve ever had. Chilli does strange things to the human mind.

So that was Shanghai. It was a welcome change to the huge, wide, grid system cities we’ve seen so far. It’s obviously been influenced by it’s western colonial past and it shows. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and would certainly go back, four days isn’t really enough for a city that size.

I’ll leave you with a couple of shots we took on our way back from beer and stupidly hot salad.


Pudong by night


Waibaidu bridge built in 1908 (just outside out hotel)

Next stop (erm, last week) Hangzhou and it’s beautiful West Lake.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Shanghai part 1

We arrived in Shanghai in the early morning after our soft sleeper from Xi’an. Luckily the train was quite and we had a 4 berth cabin all to ourselves so a good night’s sleep was had by all.

Day 1 was spent relaxing and getting our bearings. We were staying in the Astor House hotel, just north of the Bund. The hotel was the first ever hotel in Shanghai. So they claim anyway. They certainly have had their fair share of celebrity clientele.


Charlie Chaplin stayed there in the 30’s too.

The next day was a bit overcast, so we decided to visit the Shanghai Aquarium.


Watch out…

The best part was the illuminated jellyfish tank. They make great desktop wallpaper – feel free to grab one from the photos link on the right.


It was educational too. I can now identify jellyfish gonads at 20 paces, a skill that will eventually pay off, I’m sure.

The Aquarium is in the Pudong area of Shanghai – think Docklands on steroids.


The Oriental Pearl: Shanghai and China’s tallest building until…


On the left, the Shanghai World Financial Centre, currently the highest until the one on the right is finished next year

That’s it for now. Here’s a view of the Shanghai Pudong skyline from the Bund.2012-06-08-22-06-46

Next up, the French Concession and laptop shenanigans.

Thursday 14 June 2012

The Chinese did it first

Just a quick addendum to the previous but one post – I forgot to mention the Terracotta warriors’ weapons.

Recent research has shown that the different types of weapon – arrowheads, axes, swords etc. – are all made of slightly different alloys, depending on their purpose. This alone suggests that the Chinese metallurgists of the period (2000 years ago) were centuries ahead of the game.

Furthermore, after two millennia underground, some of the blade edges were still sharp. It turns out that they had been chrome-plated. Funny that, since Chromium was only discovered in 1797.


Rumour has it that in one of the more recently discovered pits, one of the generals is clutching an iPhone 5*

* Jailbroken, too.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Last night in Xi’an

We spent our last night in Xi’an having a few Belgian beers with a couple of Irish lads we met on the Terracotta Warriors tour. David is a dairy farmer on his way back to Ireland after 6 months on a farm in Oz. Noel works for an unnamed US defence contractor. Starved of techie-talk, I unwisely engaged him in conversation about the IT issues of the day only to be thoroughly out-geeked. After showing me his personally customised Android 4.0 build he cheerfully explained how to circumvent the Great Firewall by masking your packets as Skype traffic. I tried gamely to keep up, but I was a bit out my depth.

Last thoughts on Xi’an? Well, despite reports to the contrary, there’s more to the city than just the Terracotta Warriors. I thoroughly enjoyed pootling around the Muslim quarter and after 4 days there, found the place to have a really pleasant vibe. The people are friendly, the food was good and the beer was excellent (damn you Westmalle Tripel).

Soft sleeper, then Shanghai!

Feet of clay

A trip to Xi’an wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Terracotta Warriors. I’ll be honest, although I was aware of them, I had no real idea what they were, how old, who made them etc. Also, not being a big fan of museums, I wasn’t expecting too much, so I was pleasantly surprised.

Although it’s perfectly possible to get there under your own steam, having negotiated our way to Huashan the day before, we decided to go for the easy option of a guided tour. It wasn’t much pricier and turned out to be a good decision. Our guide was a tiny Chinese girl who expertly marshalled our motley collection of assorted Westerners. On the way there (a 1hr bus ride) she gave us a bit of background on the warriors, followed by a quick quiz to check we’d been listening. She definitely kept us on our toes (“my Chinese name is ‘Zha Zha’, my English name is ‘Lady Zha Zha’”).

One of the benefits of having a guide was she’d designed the tour in reverse, so the best bits were saved until last. First off was the site of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. In Zha Zha’s words, “ you can’t go in because of mercury poisoning, so it’s just a hill – nothing to see.”

She was right.


That hill in the background is Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb – no, really.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the Terracotta army to be built to make sure he would be well protected and wealthy in his next life. He was, as we say in the UK, a nutjob.

Next up, the main event, the warriors themselves. They were first discovered in 1974 by a farmer (Yang Zhifa) while digging a well. They’re split up into 3 halls. We started in the least impressive, Hall 2. Despite that, this is where the only complete warrior ever found is housed (the rest had to be remade - like the world’s hardest jigsaw). Here he is, the magic archer.


In case you’re wondering why this is a strange pose for an archer, it’s because they were almost entirely crossbowmen, no longbows here.

Next up was Hall 3, the headquarters of the army. This is where the Generals and Officers are found.


The horses apparently used to have a chariot behind them. All very interesting but we were quickly whisked to the main event, Hall 1. This is where the infantry were found. To date, about 8000 warriors have been found, of which only 2000 have been put back together. Here they are:


Re-assembling the rest will take decades, and they keep discovering more. Although the legs and torsos were made from moulds, the details on the clothing and the facial features are all individualised. Apparently, as soon as the face was complete, the worker was executed. Nice.

Seeing this reminds me again that while we westerners were still rubbing sticks together, other civilizations were achieving amazing things. These were buried more than 2000 years ago. It also tells me that the Pharaohs had some competition in the crazy megalomania stakes.

Still, it was all pretty awe inspiring. It was a shame it all had to end with a very ropey “360 degree film” which seemed to have been made, bizarrely, before the terracotta warriors were actually discovered.

Now, I’ve you’ve been paying attention, you’ll be wondering what happened to the farmer that first discovered the warriors (you have been paying attention haven’t you?). Well he got 10 Yuan (about £1) at the time. Not much you might think, but who should we see eating his lunch in the visitor centre? Yep, Yang Zhifa himself. Add 38 years of free lunches to the total. Not bad going.

Talking of lunch, we stopped by a local eatery on the way back and had an excellent feed for only 30 Yuan. Caramel potatoes – yum!

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Videos now on blog

I’ve been taking the odd video on my wanderings and I’ve finally got around to uploading some of them to my YouTube account. If you look to the right you’ll see the link. Why not waste some time listening to Japanese zebra crossing tunes or a man fighting a yellow dragon.

Monday 11 June 2012

Mount Huashan

Day 2 in Xian and no rest for us. After an early night to re-charge the batteries, we set off for Mount Huashan, the No.1 precipitous mountain in China apparently.

First-off, a 45 minute train journey from Xi’an North to Huashan North. Huashan town is supposed to be a village according to our guide book. Mmmm, more like a large town if you ask me. Exiting Huashan station, we just missed the little green shuttle bus that would take us to the visitor centre, but not to worry, we managed to get a “taxi” for the same price (i.e. some chap with a car).

We got to the tourist centre and after visiting various ticket windows, we were sorted. Beware though, you need three separate tickets: one to access the mountain, one for the cable car and one to pay for a mandatory bus to take you from the tourist centre to the cable car (money for old rope that one). I have to say though, it was worth it.


View from the cable car

First task, climb this:



It’s steeper than it looks, trust me. According to reports from a few years ago, the whole mountain was like this, with 1000ft drops on both sides. Luckily, the authorities have seen fit to make it a lot safer.

There are five peaks to conquer on the mountain, North, South, East, West and Centre peak. The North peak is a short climb from the cable car.


Huashan North Peak

After persuading Karen that it “wasn’t too far,” we set off up the hill towards the Centre peak. About two hours later, we finally made it. The views were stunning.


View of South peak from Centre peak


West peak


Heading down

Sadly, we didn’t have the time nor the energy to climb the remaining three peaks, but nevertheless, feeling pretty pleased with our efforts, we set off down the hill, only to meet this lady coming up.


She properly made me feel like the soft, flabby westerner I really am. So much for Sherpa Hoskin…

Just time for one last amazing view from the cable car before heading back to Xi’an.


If you’re ever in the area, I heartily recommend visiting Huashan. It’s really not to be missed. There’s more pics on SkyDrive (link on the right).

Next stop, some clay fellas.

Chinese driving

Like in many countries, for the Chinese, traffic signals, signs and road markings seem to be optional. If you want to go through a red light, for example, you just sound your horn. During such hairy manoeuvres, there’s no checking the mirrors or looking around to see what else is coming, it’s eyes front, foot down and horn on.

Amazingly this system seems to work, I’ve seen countless near misses, but not one accident, and not a single angry raised fist.

All this got me thinking:

  • no one looks where they’re going
  • all signs are ignored
  • all other road users are ignored
  • constant horn use
  • no accidents

No use of eyes… lot’s of noise… no collisions…

Aha! It has to be sonar!

They’re all blind as bats and are using echo location to navigate. Its the only explanation that fits the facts. You know I’m right.

Xi'an - Muslim Quarter

After an exhausting hard sleeper journey from Pingyao, we arrived in Xi'an tired and hungry. Luckily the hostel had a room ready for us. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the Muslim quarter. You could easily spend a week wandering around here, sampling foods from the hundreds of restaurants and street vendors. Among other things, we tried the stuffed, fried breads (delicious and very spicy), the local sweet, sticky rice, flavoured with rose and black sesame – it tasted a little bit like Turkish delight, and another local favourite, a pea-flour based pastry – perfect with a cup of tea.

Following the “food-on-a-stick” theme, I was tempted to try the egg kebabs.


You should have seen them putting the raw eggs on the skewer – now that’s a skill.

Friday 8 June 2012

China trains: soft or hard sleeper?

Easy. Soft.

Unless you're a fan of:
a) cigarette smoke
b) loud conversation throughout the night
c) claustrophobia
d) sleep deprivation

If so then try the hard sleeper.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Pingyao food

Before we leave Pingyao, there's just time for a quick note on the local food. The two local specialities are the Pingyao noodles and the Pingyao beef.

We had the noodles at a local eatery on the first day. They were cut straight into the pot from freshly made dough. As noodles go, they were pretty good.

A bit more interesting was the beef. According to legend, a local chef, dismayed that his good beef had started to go off, on a whim decided to see if he could save it by salting it for 3 months and then boiling it for 12 hours. The meat was transformed and Pingyao beef was born.

We couldn't leave without trying it. Apparently they no longer start with rotten meat, which is a relief. The meat was really succulent, salty, but not overly do. It's a bit like what I imagine corned beef should be like, if it didn't come from a tin. I'd definitely have it again.

Finally, although not necessarily a local speciality, twice here we've had the braised river carp.

There's no attempt to fillet it, you have to pick the flesh up with your chopsticks. Ive never had carp before. It tastes quite delicate, but meaty too. Ours came in an excellent sweet and sour sauce. I'll be looking out for similar dishes as we visit other places. It's really good.

That's it from Pingyao. Next stop Xi'an.

Location:Pingyao, China

Last day in Pingyao

We're catching the hard sleeper to Xi'an tonight, but before then we've got one more day in Pingyao.

With nothing better to do, we decided to visit some of the museums our 3-day pass lets us into. The draft bank museum and the armed escort museum are worth looking at. Wandering through the maze of courtyards and alleyways, all reeking of history, you really get a flavour of what life was like here. I'm not usually a museum fan but it was fascinating. I even got chance to practice my archery.

In ancient China, archery was an effective defender against straw and balloon attack.

One of the highlights was the City God temple. As soon as you walk through the threshold - peace and quiet (apart from the rabbitting tour guides).


Isn't religion funny.

To be fair I think this room was meant to depict the eternal torment of hell, but my Mandarin's not up to scratch so I can't be sure.

Location:Pingyao, China

Pingyao city walls

Yesterday we walked round the city walls. I'm running out of superlatives for Pingyao. It boggles the mind to think that they were built in their present form in the 1300's. They're just immense. It boggles my mind even further to think that these weren't even the biggest, they're just the best preserved in China.

I'm really loving Pingyao. After the hecticity (hecticness?) of Beijing, it's been great to chill out here. If you're ever in the vicinity (i.e. China) then you really should pay it a visit. You won't be disappointed.

Location:Pingyao, China