Wednesday 18 July 2012


About 70km south of Guilin lies Yangshuo and if you’re in the area looking for some iconic Chinese scenery, then Yangshuo is the place to be. We stayed there for a week at the Outside Inn, a few miles outside Yangshuo and properly in the countryside.

Apart from the ever-present mosquito threat, Yangshuo is a bit of a rural paradise (aside: I have a pretty good way of avoiding the mozzies – stay close to Karen. They seem to prefer the taste of her blood to mine). There was loads to keep us occupied. We went swimming in the river, took a walk into Yangshuo and back (about 3h round trip), hired some bikes to explore the countryside and took a bamboo raft down the Yulong river.

We even got to pretend we were real explorers when our walk to the “Lost Plateau” behind the hostel turned out to be a bit more challenging than expected. The path was slightly more overgrown than advertised – we were warned good shoes were required but really needed a couple of machetes to find the path down the other side. No harm done (apart from a couple of falls and some thorns in my head).

The "Lost Plateau" - we nearly were
We also spent one morning on a Chinese cookery course and learned how to make five delicious dishes. Turns out I’ve been using a wok wrong all these years. I also got some handy tips on how to hold my chopper.

"Who you looking at?"
I cooked all that!
The cooking lesson was preceded by a trip to the local market. I learned about a few new vegetables and also not to eat the local chillies raw (I couldn’t resist, they looked like cherries and the teacher said they weren’t spicy – she was lying). I also learned to be wary of the livestock section. The cages full of live poultry, rabbits and ducks didn’t bother me much – I’ve seen similar and worse all over China, but I definitely heard barking over in the corner. I didn’t investigate further…

We had to dodge the odd thunderstorm but that was fine because it took the edge off the humidity. The food was good, the scenery was idyllic and it was a very relaxing week; a perfect end to our Chinese adventures.

Now we’ve just got a short stopover in Nanning before getting the bus to Hanoi (note to self: must learn Vietnamese on the bus).

I’ll leave you with a selection of the best photos from Yangshuo. As ever, click on the photos link on the right for loads more. I'll try and upload a few more videos from the past few weeks' adventures too.

Cooking with gas
Rice paddies and karst hills around Yangshuo
The swimming pool
Chinese farmer with water buffalo
More karst and rice
Bamboo rafts on the Yulong river
Our new breakfast buddy
Us, bamboo rafting on the Yulong river
Ah, young love (or in this case, two models getting eaten by mosquitos)
Yangshuo scenery
Distant karst hills
Raft race

Yangshuo panorama
Current Location: Nanning until 20th July
Next Stop: Hanoi

Tuesday 17 July 2012

My failed attempt to switch from iOS to Android

First, a warning for those that are only interested in my travel blog posts - you may want to skip this one, it's a bit more geek-oriented than usual. For the rest of you (yes, both of you), read on!

So, despite help from around the world (cheers Oscar), nothing I tried was able to resurrect my dead iPhone 4. After quite a bit of online research (travelling around China affords me fair bit of free time) I convinced myself that the time was right to go Android. Android 4 is not quite iOS-polished yet, but it’s getting there and being a heavy user of Google products, the close OS-integration definitely appealed. A micro-SIM in my pocket meant that the list of compatible handsets was relatively short but on that list was the Samsung Galaxy S3. Having read the mostly rave reviews, what better Android handset to help sever the cords from Mother Apple?

What could possibly go wrong? Well, a few things.

I found a shop in Guilin that looked legit and was offering the S3 at a good price. Being naturally cautious, I made sure that my Vodafone SIM worked and had a brief look at the OS to make sure it was the latest version. Happy as Larry, I paid up and made off with my new toy, even stopping to buy a cheap cover for it (including haggling 50p off the price – a bit pointless considering what I’d just paid for the phone but it’s the principle dammit!).

Back at the hostel, I got the phone hooked up to the internet, started setting it up and immediately noticed a few anomalies. First: no Google Play store. Without that, how was I going to install the apps I need? Or any apps? A bit of investigation online told me that to get the Play store, I would need to root the phone – something I was very reluctant to do with a brand new handset, since it voids any warranty. I also discovered that the particular model I’d just been sold was China-specific (the i9308 instead of the i9300) – something that both the shop and the Wikipedia article on the Galaxy S3 failed to mention. This would have meant that the mobile would not work properly outside of China. Not ideal.

OK, I could go back to the store and get the correct model, but the inability to install apps was more worrying. More digging showed that a pile of other Android settings were either short on options or missing altogether.

Back to the shop.

Luckily, the nice girl who originally sold me the phone was still there. With a bit of pointing and showing, I managed to explain about the handset compatibility problem. She duly appeared with the right model, but before I left this time, I asked her to show me how to install apps.

Although she couldn’t get the Google Play store, she did get a Chinese version installed by sending the APK over via Bluetooth. A bit of a techie-hack, but it worked. I asked her to install an app to prove that it worked – the Gmail app. She managed to get it to install, but it wouldn’t run – something I suspected might happen according to one of the forums I’d read: a language-pack incompatibility apparently.

Fast suspecting that her commission was about to evaporate, she tried gamely to get it to work by installing APK’s direct from a PC. A bit of a dirtier hack and not something I fancied having to do myself. After 20 minutes without success, I finally called a halt to proceedings and demanded a refund (mysteriously, her previously good English dried up at that point and she couldn’t understand the word ‘refund’). Luckily for me the shop owner seemed to accept that a smartphone that can’t install apps is not much use and gave me my money back.

So what to make of all this? Firstly, why, if I’m buying an unlocked, SIM free handset, is Android hobbled so it only works in the country of purchase? Why can’t I just change the language to English (UK) and get on with it? Why? WHY?

I thought the whole point of Android was openness. Does iOS, with all its restrictions, stop you doing this with an unlocked phone? Not as far as I can tell.

I actually wrote a letter to the head of Samsung UK explaining all this and asking for help (no reply so far). I also pointed out that the combination of Android 4 and the Galaxy S3 had finally persuaded a 4+ year iPhone user to make the switch. I mean, I'd actually handed over my cash and walked out the store!

Now things aren't so clear cut. The issues above effectively mean that I can’t get a new phone until I get back to the UK in November – the Vietnamese or Thai versions may not have the same problems but why would I take the risk? By then the new iPhone will be out and that with all the collateral I’ve got in the App Store means I may no longer be so keen to move.

They almost had me…

Guilin & Longji Rice Terraces

9th-10th July
We arrived in Guilin about a week ago for a short stop before heading to Yangshuo. We had pre-booked a trip to the Longji Rice Terraces, or Dragon’s Backbone as they are known (or Longsheng according to the Wiki page).

These are about two hours north of Guilin City. Before heading to the terraces we were treated to a ‘Long Hair Show’ from the women of a near-by village. They are part of a Chinese ethnic minority and have some peculiar customs when it comes to their hair. First-off, they never cut it – some of them have 2m-plus hair. But it’s not left to blow in the wind – there are strict rules about how it should be styled. If you’re an unmarried girl, then it all needs to be tucked under your hat, ready for your future husband. As soon as you’re married, out it comes, but it’s got to be carefully wrapped around your head, like a snake. Finally, when you have a baby, you’re allowed to use the final style, wrapped around but with a large bunch at the front. You can see the three styles in the photo below.

It's all about the barnet
The show itself was about an hour: 50% singing and dancing and 50% humiliate-the-westerner. Luckily, despite some pretty strong peer pressure, I resisted and this guy got picked to ‘marry’ a local girl.

Big Danish bloke (in the middle)
All good fun, although his new wife didn’t look too happy about it.

"Don't touch me"
After lunch it was off to the Dragon's Backbone rice terraces. According to our guide, they took 500 years to complete at a rate of about one terrace per year.

Seven Stars and the Moon - count 'em
Rice terraces
Nine Dragons and Five Tigers - I can only see eight and three, myself

The view changes dramatically through the seasons: in spring, the rice hasn’t sprouted yet so they are waterlogged and reflect the sky; in summer, as you can see from the photos, they are lush and green with growing rice; in the autumn they turn bright yellow as the rice grass ages; finally, in winter, they are covered in a blanket of pure, white snow. There's some good pictures here.

It was all extremely pretty. We walked around the area for about an hour and a half before catching the bus back to Guilin. Overall, a lovely day out.

Current Location: Yangshuo until 18th July
Next Stop: Nanning

Sunday 15 July 2012

Zhangjiajie - Tianmen mountain

6th July 2012
As if the Avatar-influenced National Forest Park wasn’t spectacular enough, Zhangjiajie wasn’t finished there. To the south of the city lies Tianmen mountain, famous for it’s huge natural cave, cutting a hole through the mountain big enough to see from the suburbs. More on that later.

Talking of the suburbs, just to the south of the town centre is the cable car station. Billed as “longest passenger cableway of high mountains in the world” – a suspiciously precise definition – this is easily the longest cable-car ride I’ve ever been on. It takes you over the outskirts of the city, across rice paddies and fields before finally striking steeply up the mountain-side.


I would say that the views are incredible, but I’m afraid I’ll run out of superlatives too early, so I won’t.

The top cable-car station is pretty close to the top of the mountain. If you’re in a rush, you can take a tunnel straight to the Fairy Peak. There’s plenty of time to see everything in a day without rushing though, so we decided to head round the mountain along the East Path. A lot of the path is along what they call ‘plank roads’ but they’re actually more like concrete. Just as well pretty otherwise it would be pretty hairy.


And the views? Well, see for yourself.




About an hour round the East Path, you arrive at a temple and a chair-lift up to the Fairy Peak. The temple is nice if you like that kind of thing so we had a spot of lunch before trying the chair-lift.


A minor word of warning – we got fleeced out of a few pounds because, although there are return tickets available, the kiosk at the bottom doesn’t have them. So if you want to go down once you’re up, it’s two singles. I tried complaining but I didn’t know the Mandarin for, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Not to worry, it was worth it anyway. They’ve built (almost finished) a pagoda at the top for even better views.


We headed back from the temple area along the West Path. More amazing views and precipitous walkways:


Almost back at the cable-car station was the bit I’d been waiting for – the glass walkway! As if the plank roads weren’t scary enough, the crazy Chinese have built the same thing out of glass. After paying a small fee, I donned my polishing slippers and set forth.


After the initial shock, it actually wasn’t that bad and again, the views were beyond belief.





And finally, it was time to take the cable car back down. But not all the way – the mountains wasn't finished yet. Remember the cave I mentioned? Well, a short way down the mountain, there’s another cable-car station where you can get off and start the trip back up the hill to the cave. There’s a bus that takes you most of the way – there’s supposedly 99 bends in the road, but luckily 40 of them are below the cable-car stop.


Once the bus drops you of, there’s just the small matter of 999 steps to get up to the cave.


Trust me, there really are 999 steps – I counted them. I actually counted 1002, but to be honest I may have lost count in the last 150 due to oxygen starvation. 999 steps is a lot. It’s steeper than it looks from the bottom too.




And that, apart from a tired stagger down 999 steps, was that.

It’s a close run thing with the National Forest Park (see previous post) but I have to say that Tianmen mountain is my favourite place in China so far.

On this evidence, it won’t be long until it get’s a much higher profile in the Western guide books and tour groups. I only discovered it via a forwarded email from a friend of the mother of a friend (thanks Adam).

If you happen to be planning a trip to China any time soon, make sure Zhangjiajie is on your list.


One final thing – I know this post is photo-heavy, but there’s loads I missed. Take a look at the photos link on the right for more amazing scenery – some of them make great desktop wallpapers.

Current Location: Yangshou until 18th July
Next Stop: Nanning