Wednesday, 28 November 2007


I'm in the town of Dali, a really pretty if very touristy town in northern Yunnan.
It a bit of a change - menues are in English, guesthouse owners speak English, what's going on? It's pretty high so pretty cold at night, but the sun warms the place up lovely during the day. It's a good place to just stroll about, drink some local tea and sample the delicious food (local Bai, Tibetan and Chinese). And I've been sampling a lot of it. Must be the colder air making me hungry. I must say I wasnt expecting the food here to be so good - outside Thailand it's the best I've had on the trip. The black peppers are especially zingy, they would make a good novacane substitute.

At night the town is especially pretty, with the chill in the air and the lights on the buildings and temples it gives an almost Christmas like feeling to the place. It's really nice just to wander about and hit a few of the cute bars in town. I'm still surprised by the dearth of western tourists - I guess it's low season.

The town is certainly a lot different than modern Kunming, from where I jumped the train to here. Although significantly longer than the bus trip, it was worth it for the relative comfort and the chance to try to chat (up/to) the locals. Luckily the ones opposite me spoke a bit of English, and were a good laugh. I must say I'm finding the Chinese a lot friendlier than I expected. In Kunming I got invited out with some locals for Hotpot, and then onto a club where I didnt have to pay for any of the (large quantities of) booze. Magic. Tonight I'm actually going to try to learn some Mandarin, Mr Li next door has offered me pretty cheap lessons so will give it a try, beats trying to guess what pronunciation the Collins phrasebook writers actually were try to convey.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore

Yes I've left SE Asia behind and entered the uncharted teritory that is China. Hekou, the Chinese border town, is famous for the border guards enthuasism for collecting LP Chinas, so I ripped mine to bits and just took the loose pages I needed - just as well, they leafed through all of my books - all very pleasantly done mind, and satisfied that I wasnt in posession of the demon book I passed through unscathed. Travelling in China is definitely different - almost noone speaks more than 1 word (hello) of English, so my phrasebook has become invaluable, along with the LPs Chinese script names for the cities/guesthouses which I can just point to.

My first destination was Yuanyang, famous (in China at least) for the beautifully sculpted rice terraces that are often shrouded in mist. The trip there was really beautiful and really long and bumpy, the road being at times asphalt, dust and mud. Seems like even the Chinese havent managed to build motorways in this part of their country.

Yunnan province is home to a higher percentage of ethnic minorities than anywhere else in China, and in this respect it is a little like Sapa in Vietnam, without the (western) tourists - there were a handful in Yuanyang, and after a day we all knew each other, its a pretty small place. The various groups are beautifully dressed in really colourful garb, and although they tend to employ similar hard arm selling tacticts as their cousins over the border, there pretty good natured about it. So far I'm really enjoying this part of China, though it does come with some less savoury sites, such as dogs being skinned and some truly awful public toilets, and theres a definite increase in volume of both spitting and shouting which takes a bit of getting used to, but for me the ubiquitous smoking is the toughest, especially on the buses. But it's all part of the experience! And the food is good so far, which is a bonus. The vegetarian stuff is especially tasty and cheap, so long as you dont mind the odd bit of pork or chicken thrown in.
I'm now in Kunming, a bright, modern, cosmopolitian city, and a nicer spot than I would have imagined. Theres even a little english spoken. I'm off to see if I can score some warmer threads .. its cold up here!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Towards China

Having a bit of time to spare while waiting on my China visa, I headed south of Hanoi for a day to Tam Coc, an area geographically similiar to Halong bay, minus the bay. Its all part of a chain stretching up from Krabi in Thailand, Tha Kiet and Vang Vieng in Laos, through Halong bay and continuing up to the Guillin area in China. It's certainly very beautiful, even if the experience is even more of a tourist trap than Halong. The best part of the trip was getting away on the mountain bikes and peddling through some local villages, which let you appreciate the scenery away from the crowds, and also meet some of the locals who were super friendly, and, as yet, not looking for money!

The main part of the trip involved heading through some caves, being rowed by charasmatic old locals. Despite the crowds it was a really pleasant experience.

In Hanoi, I said goodbye to Elliott who was on his way to Sapa via motorbike - my recently weakened constitution prefered the train. I met up with Tuyen and Hanh, two sweet Vietnamese students we had met before by the lake, and I had a nice day wondering about, eating ice-cream and drinking coffee. On my last day I even braved the traffic chaos of Hanoi and rented a mophead for some touring, which was a bit of a challenge and not a little adreneline fueled.

Eventually I had to head north on the night train to Sapa. I was really quiet sad to leave Hanoi, having met loads of great people and stayed in the friendliest guesthouse so far on this trip. Had a good nights kip on the train, and arrived in Sapa to beautiful blue skies. After wandering about town for 5 minutes I bumped into Elliott, who had made good time on his meandering mountain route despite coming off his bike at 60kmp - other than some serious oil stains on his jeans he came away totally unscathed. Pretty lucky.

We headed off to the local H'mong village of Cat Cat, which was a lovely walk in the sunshine, and we managed to get lost the other side of the village, in or efforts to escape the tourist hordes. On the way back I realised I was coming down with something, and spent much of the next 2 days recovering from a particularly nasty cold. It seems like the weather on our first day was a bit of an anomoly - its been totally fog bound since, though this morning the sun is trying to break through. So, much of the time was spent drinking hot liquids around roaring fires and being entertained by interesting locals like chess champion Mr Tim, the bunches of local lads kicking around what feels something like a badmington shuttlecock and a nice bunch of pool playing black H'mong girls. It was nice to be able to talk with some of the minorities without them trying to flog you everything from necklaces to opium. And their street learned english was amazingly good.
Today I'm heading off to the China border...sounds like one of the less pleasant crossings, but, sure, it's all part of the experience.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Tour of duty II

So I'm back in Vietnam for my second tour here. I wasnt 100% sure about coming back up to the north, but I'm so glad I did. It's been amazing. Halong bay alone has been one of the highlights of the trip so far. It's incredibly beautiful, and even the flotilla of tourist boats didn't detract from the experience. Sleeping on the milk-pond like bay and waking in such amazing surroundings was pretty unforgettable. Even if, as is the nature of these tours, at times you felt a bit like a sheep in a pack, with enforced stops at craft centers en route, along with the 100s of other minibuses.

Apart from enjoying the stunning views, we had time to get suitably lost kayacking, and repeatedly dive into the inviting water from the top of the boat.

Back in Hanoi to the chaos of literally millions of motorbikes choking the narrow French like streets. But I love the place for some reason. Maybe it's the way most of the streets in the old town are still dedicated to a profession, like silk makers, tin smiths, bamboo or even headstones. Or the wafting of fresh coffee from the multitude of coffee shops, the numerous Bia Hoi places selling glasses of the local liquor for pennies, or the beautiful girls that seem to fill the streets.

Whetever, I'm finding it really hard to leave the place. Just strolling around without much of a purpose is a great way to pass the day, and theres always the lake or some of the old houses or cool bars to escape the crowds. In one of which I encountered an ex-pat looking for some English speakers to teach. Feeling like I needed to be useful I gave it a go for a few sessions, and it was fun, definitely something I could do more of.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Back in Bangkok

So after the Docs at Bangkok Hospital, Phuket gave me the alr clear I found myself on a plane for the first time since early June, and back in Bangkok. Well, I didnt think a 12 hour bus would be the best thing for me just now.
Bangkok always surprises me, one minute your marveling at the construction of the new sky train and the amazing shopping centers (and that's coming from a shopping hater) and the next your route is cut off by a passing elephant. It has a reputation for truly awful traffic, but its easy enough to avoid the worst by using the river ferries, canal boats, Metro and Skytrain, which are all fun and pretty stress free ways of getting around.

I based myself in backpacker based banglampu, mainly as I reckoned it would be the handiest place to get my Nam visa. I'm staying in a nice little family house off of soi Rambutri, which is just far enough away from the neon lights of Kao San. I had to wait around for a few days, which, given my delicate nature at present, wasn't a bad thing.
Apart from gorging on thai food, I managed to get out a bit and do some cultural things, like checking out the house of Jim Thompson, which was pretty cool and colonial, as well as the super modern siam square area. I also paid a visit to one of the more visited "cultural" attractions, the infamous patpong - something I'd not done before, and, quite frankly, probably won't bother again. I guess it's the sort of thing you need to see once, but there's only so many times, despite the obvious skill involved, that popping baloons with a dart gets you excited. To complete this part of my tourism extravaganza, I visited the soi Cowboy strip in Sukhumvit, which was a little lower key but more of the same really.

On another note, I just found out that a pic I took of a bridge in Verona was used on the cover of a magazine, so that was pretty cool.
My passport with Visa finally arrived back today, so I'm all set for the Nam flight tomorrow.