Thursday, March 29, 2007 China China

Doin' China, Days 1 and 2

Shanghai acrobatic show [Enlarge]

Yesterday our grand tour of China began. Our guide, Mae, met us in reception at 09:30 and we went outside to a waiting MPV. We went first to Shanghai Museum which is a traditional museum with artefacts in glass cases. They're beautifully lit and presented, but unless you have a particular interest in multi-thousand year old bronze vessels there are only so many you can look at in one day. Mae was not allowed to provide a commentary inside the museum so she gave us radio handsets to get the museum's own information. We managed to do reasonable justice to the bronze, furniture, currency, calligraphy and writing seal galleries.

The next destination on our itinerary was The Bund. The word Bund sounds German (to us), but Mae told us that it's a Hindi word meaning 'embankment' and it's pronounced like 'sticky bun' with a 'd' on the end. If you don't speak German that's probably the way you pronounced it in your head when you read it anyway! On our side of the Huangpu River we had a good view across to the Pudong area with its fantastic modern skyline, and behind us of the old colonial-era buildings, mostly banks and hotels. They say in Shanghai that you can see the architectural style of every European country in this part of the city.

Twenty years ago the only way to cross the river was by ferry. No one wanted to live in Pudong if they worked in the main part of Shanghai because the commute was slow. Now there are bridges and a subway, not to mention the tourist tunnel [was that a dream?], and Pudong is thriving. After this, Mae seemed to run out of things to tell us and suggested we go for lunch. We went to a local hotel and were shown to a table laid for four. We were expecting Mae to join us and were looking forward to finding out first hand how to use chopsticks, which food to put in which bowl at which time, and resolve all those little details that might stop us from generally making a scene. We sat down and were disappointed when the staff cleared away the crockery from two of the place settings. Mae said she would see us later—she would be eating elsewhere in the restaurant. We were going to have to figure it out by ourselves.

Some food came. Then some more came. Then some more. Luckily it stopped before the table collapsed. There was enough to feed a dozen people, and when we were completely full many of the dishes looked like they hadn't even been touched. It was embarrassing, but we couldn't eat any more—not even a wafer thin mint.

With lunch over (if not finished) it was time for the 'visit a local family' slot. We drove across town and ended up at a community centre for use by retired people. Here we were briefly shown an array of wonderful things provided for the retired people, such as gym equipment, libraries, computer rooms, art studios, chess rooms etc. There was even a small souvenir shop for the tourists. We were joined by an official guide and it seems that a family was allocated to us at that time, as Mae was as much in the dark as we were. We drove a couple of blocks with the official guide also in the car, to a nearby housing estate. We went to a ground-floor apartment and rang a doorbell. The metal-grilled door was opened by Mrs Wu. She ushered us in and we all sat down around her dining table. Mae and the official guide gave us little bits of information about life in Shanghai and we managed to have some sort of conversation with Mrs Wu via Mae. Then we had a quick look around. Grandma lives in the back room, Mr and Mrs Wu sleep in the living room, beyond which is their teenage son's room. There was also a bathroom and kitchen. We said things like 'you have a very nice home' and 'thank you for letting us come to see you' and we left. It was a strange experience. We wondered just what the arrangement is here. Certainly there are only a select number of families whom foreigners are permitted to visit.

Back in the car, Mae talked about how housing works in Shanghai. Local people (native Shanghainese) used to be provided with a house or flat by the government, but had no say over where it was. Now in the market economy, they can get a subsidised home with a shared-ownership scheme and a very low-cost government loan—and so they have a say over how much they are willing to pay and where the accommodation is. If non-Shanghainese people want to live in the city they can, but they get no help with the cost of their accommodation. Of the 20 million people in Shanghai, 14 million are Shanghainese. Shanghai is a very popular place to live and work so parents nationwide want their daughters to marry a Shanghainese boy.

Next up was the Yu garden in the old part of the city. Designed and built in the sixteenth century by government official Pan Yunduan for his parents, the garden took so long to complete that both parents had died before it was finished. Bet he never thought that 430 years later his garden would still be delighting visitors. It was beautiful and very cleverly designed, such that it feels huge even though it is fitted into quite a small space.

We returned to the Pacific Luck for a break for a few hours. It wasn't very far to go—by subway and foot it would have taken about 15 minutes, but stuck in the Shanghai traffic it took 45 minutes. We learned that Shanghai has three rush hours a day: the morning one from 06:00 to 12:00, then the lunchtime one from 12:00 to 14:00, and the evening one from 14:00 until at least 21:00.

Our tour itinerary included a "memorable dinner" at the Central Hotel, whose restaurant Wang Bao He has a history of around 260 years and is apparently the best place in town to enjoy Shanghai cuisine. It was indeed excellent—we had some really delicious pork dumplings, but we were still so full from lunch that we only spent half our 300 yuan budget. We finished off the first day with a visit to the Portman Acrobatic Show at the Lyceum Theatre. The acrobats were incredibly talented. Our money will be on China doing well in the gymnastics at next year's Beijing Olympics.

We had this morning free, and there was just one more thing that we wanted to see before we caught the overnight train to Huangshan. Shanghai boasts the world's only commercial MagLev (magnetic levitation) train, running from Longyang Road subway station out to Pudong Airport. For 80 yuan (GBP 5.24 / USD 10.35) for a return ticket you can make the 32 kilometre journey in just over seven minutes, peaking (briefly) at 431 km/h (268 mph). It's currently the world's fastest in-service ground-based transport. We now understand how the people who travelled on early trains in the nineteenth century must have felt, when they were used to moving around at walking pace. The feeling of speed is further enhanced by the fact that you run most of the way right next to an expressway, passing the cars as if they are standing still. But it's still an incredible 150 km/h slower than the MagLev world record set in Japan on a test run. Yes, of course we made a video! See below. At the start of the clip we are doing maximum speed but we soon start to slow down because we are getting close to the airport. At 1 min 06 sec we pass another train at a combined closing speed of over 700 km/h. The other train is five carriages long but it passes in a flash—don't blink or you will miss it.

There happened to be a convenience store at the airport, so as we're on another overnight train tonight, we bought some food for breakfast tomorrow morning. Then we caught the MagLev back into town. Surely this had been the world's fastest trip to a grocery shop.

OK, so we've only seen China's most advanced city so far, but based on this evidence there is little doubt that the future is going to be led by China. The Chinese just decide what they want to do, and then they go and make it happen. Flatten an entire district of a city and turn it into an international financial centre? No problem, let's do it. Western domination of the world is over and we had better start getting used to it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 Other stuff

Travel blog of note

We are delighted to be featured in Ubertramp's 8 recommended travel reads. On his blog, Ubertramp mixes travel stories, advice and comment—and still manages to find time to read and review humble blogs like ours.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007 China China

Shanghai: model city

Our 26 hour train journey was much more relaxing than we had expected, but we were still tired and didn't fancy going out on our first evening. The weather wasn't too good either. So we chose to chill out in our very well appointed room at the three-star Pacific Luck Hotel, making use of their complimentary broadband internet access and taking a bath in the groovy glass-walled bathroom. The only downside of the hotel was the in-house restaurant where we had an unmemorable dinner (we won't be eating dinner there again) and breakfast (which is included, so we will unfortunately be back for that one). The food was pretty bad and the service from the totally demotivated staff was half-hearted. Nay, it was no-hearted. When we came down for breakfast about two-thirds of the way through the service, we found that precisely no tables had been cleared away from previous use and made ready for new diners. The buffet stand had run out of: cutlery, glasses, plates, bowls, croissants, milk, tea and coffee. The staff did not appear to have noticed that every table needed clearing and absolutely everything on the buffet needed replenishing. Instead they were standing around chatting to each other. When we asked them if they would mind bringing out some new supplies, they did—very slowly. Sigh.

To have a break from do-it-yourself travel, we have decided to book a tour of China so that we can kick back for a couple of weeks. Our tour, booked through doesn't really begin until tomorrow, so for our first day in Shanghai we had to make our own fun. After a good night's sleep we headed outside on foot.

When trying to cross the road in a new city, experience has made us cautious. There is no strategy which will guarantee success in any two cities. Shanghai is a city with proper pedestrian crossings and red/green men, but we've seen them ignored in plenty of places before. So at our first crossing point we were hesitant, and rightly so. It seems that traffic lights here are treated as advisory and vehicles cross the great expanses of tarmac at major intersections on random trajectories. Once we had sussed it out we found that the greatest chance of success at crossing the road comes from initially using the Hong Kong strategy of waiting for the green man to show; then switching to the Vietnam style of just striding out into the road slowly but deliberately, maintaining eye contact with the drivers, advancing bit-by-bit and trusting that they will avoid you. After about a ten minute walk we found ourselves at the famous Bund (the road along the waterfront), and then at Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main shopping street, and probably not unrelatedly, its main touting street.

The largest model of a city in the world. The model occupies an area of over 100 square metres and is in 1:2000 scale. [IMG_1690]
Huge model of Shanghai [Enlarge]

We decided to have a look at the Urban Planning Center on People's Square, which charts Shanghai's building progress over the last twenty years, and its plan for the next twenty. Arranged over four floors, with a hundred square metres of one floor occupied by a colossal scale model of the city—the largest urban planning model in the world—which depicts the entire area inside the ring road in 1:2000 scale as it will look in 2020. The most striking thing was the series of photos on display which show a series of streets as they were in the late 1980s or early 90s, placed next to photos of the same streets (retaken by the same photographer) in 2004. It's hard to believe that you're looking at the same city. Shanghai twenty years ago was shacks and dirt roads; today it is gleaming skyscrapers and multi-national companies.

In the museum's shop we found a small book claiming to teach the reader to recognise and understand 71 of the most common Chinese characters. Doesn't sound much, but when you realise that these characters are found all over the place, and as part of hundreds of other characters, the claim is that it will get you well on the way to being able to make sense of Chinese signs, menus etc. It looked like a great book, so we bought it. We walked through town looking for a supermarket to get a new pack of washing powder and found an Alldays convenience store where we got something that looks like hand-washing powder (we can't read the pack so we're not a hundred percent sure), and some beer and instant noodles for dinner. We were pretty sure we had identified the beer and instant noodles correctly and although the cooking instructions on the noodles were in Chinese we didn't think we would go too far wrong with adding hot water and stirring! We took the Shanghai subway back towards our hotel. It was cheap at 3 yuan each for our two-stop journey (GBP 0.20 / USD 0.39), and not too crowded.

A very strange train ride under the Huangpu River. [IMG_1698]
The Bund Tourist Tunnel, Shanghai [Enlarge]

After a tasty chilli-beef-noodle dinner in our room we decided to visit one of Shanghai's high-tech, high-rise attractions: the Jinmao tower. This is an 88-storey sky scraper like the IFC in Hong Kong, but unlike the IFC this one has an observation deck on the top floor. Yay! To get there we needed to cross the river Huangpu, so we took in the unusual alternative to the subway: the Bund Tourist Tunnel. The sober name does not give any hints as to the psychedelic and deeply disturbing experience that a ride through this tunnel entails. The journey lasts a couple of minutes, during which time you sit in your glass capsule and pass by an ever-changing sequence of coloured neon, strobes, fibre-optic fairy lights and dancing inflatable figures, while weird sounds and random words assault your ears. We most liked the words nascent magma. The price is steep at 40 yuan (GBP 2.64 / USD 5.17) for a return ticket, which probably explains why the place was bereft of locals and relatively uncontaminated by tourists too. We had no trouble getting the two seats at the front of our pod. Glenn attached the tripod to the front handrail and started clicking away with the camera. We're quite pleased with the photographic results.

The floors below are the Grand Hyatt hotel, occupying the 53rd to 87th floors. The lobby is visible at the bottom. [IMG_1710]
Looking down inside the Jinmao tower [Enlarge]

We could clearly see the Jinmao tower from the tunnel's exit (it is the fourth tallest building in the world, after all) and having marked the tunnel on the GPS so we could find our way back to it, we set off towards the tower. Again, the 70 yuan to go up to the observation deck is pricey, but we figured that we were only going to do it once. Having bought our tickets we were packed into a fifty-person express elevator which is dedicated to the observation floor, and were whisked up from the basement to the 88th floor in 45 ear-popping seconds. On the observation floor you can't get outside, but the windows all around give a pretty good view of the city below. However, the best thing is the view inside! Floors 53 to 87 of the tower are occupied by the Shanghai Grand Hyatt Hotel. The rooms are around the edge of the tower, and the centre is a huge open atrium. From floor 88 you can gaze down and see the hotel guests reading the papers and sipping their tea in the lobby lounge 35 floors below. It's really, really cool. The observation floor also has a post office, so we sent our new niece, now three months old, a postcard from the world's highest post office in terms of distance from the ground.

Monday, March 26, 2007 China China / Hong Kong Hong Kong

Night train to Shanghai

Night train to Shanghai [Enlarge]

Our marathon 26 hour train ride turned out to be our most relaxing long distance journey so far. Here's the story.

Hung Hom station, Hong Kong's mainline railway station, was easy to find. We took the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui, walked through a subterranean tunnel to the KCR (Kowloon Canton Railway) station, caught a subway train (almost indistinguishable from the MTR but run by the train company) and got off at Hung Hom. The station concourse is home to a variety of shops and eateries. We still had some credit on our Octopus cards so we had a quick lunch at McDonalds (who accept Octopus), and then found an Octopus-friendly convenience store to buy something to eat on the train.

Hong Kong departure formalities were handled in an airport-style way and we spent the last fifteen minutes in a 'boarding gate' area. We weren't quite sure how the Chinese immigration would be organised—would we stop at the border and get off, or would the officials board the train and go carriage-to-carriage as they had in Europe? The 15:00 train departed at exactly 15:00 and we found ourselves on our own in a four-person compartment. Since the train went all the way to Shanghai with no stops we had no worries that anyone else would be joining us en route and so we could stretch out and relax. We got talking to some Americans in the next carriage who had come to China for a car rally, but it had been cancelled, so they had decided to jump on a train and see where it took them. We came away with an open invitation to stay with one of them at his homes in Washington and Utah states. This is our second invitation to stay with Americans (the other is a family in upstate New York who we met when we went quad biking and white water rafting in northern Thailand). Of all the people we have spent time speaking with on this trip, many of the most friendly, kind-hearted and broad-minded ones have been American. They often get a tough time abroad, but they shrug it off with great dignity and it never dents their friendliness.

Hung Hom station is in the north-eastern suburbs of Kowloon so it didn't take long for us to leave the city behind. As the urban high-rise turned to rural low-rise and the concrete became fields, the skies cleared and the sun came out. The cloud that had shrouded the city for our whole stay was highly localised, we guess it's a combination of moisture from the sea and traffic pollution. With absolutely no fanfare we crossed the Chinese border. If we hadn't been looking out of the window at the time we would have missed the simple barbed-wire fence and river crossing. There was no stop, and no officials came through the train. We had read that the train might stop at Shenzen or Dongguan for border formalities, but it didn't. The conductor came through the train and filed our tickets in a plastic folder, giving us little credit-card sized tickets in return. This procedure is done (we think) so that they can work out where everybody is getting off, and come through the train to wake people up if they are getting off the train during the night. He spoke no English but using sign language we managed to ask him when our passports would be stamped. He seemed to say that it would be done at Shanghai, at the end of the journey.

We spent a pleasant few hours watching Guangzhou (Canton) province slide past the windows. It looked different from Hong Kong, but no less developed, with more building work going on everywhere. After it got dark at about 18:30, we read the complimentary Sunday paper we had got in the hotel, did the quick crossword, then had an early night.

When we awoke the next morning it was raining—proper rain like we get in Britain, the incessant type with small, miserable, drenching droplets. Everything looked wet: the fields, the cows, the people. We felt nice and cosy in our bunks so we stayed in bed until midday watching the scenery and this time tackling the cryptic crossword which the Hong Kong paper had syndicated from the British Daily Telegraph. The conductor came back to take back our plastic ticket substitutes and swap them back for the real ones. We got up in time for lunch, which consisted of the remainder of the cheese buns and cashew nuts that we had brought with us. Having spent some more time chatting to the Americans, we arrived on time (to the minute), at Shanghai. We hadn't been bored at all, and we had had a comfortable sleep. The journey hadn't felt anything like 26 hours, in fact it had gone much more quickly than some of our previous butt-numbing epics (Belgrade to Sofia and Mumbai to Margao spring immediately to mind) and yet it had been twice as long. Overnight is definitely more relaxing than all day.

We packed up our bags and left the train, into a fenced off area which funnelled us into the station building and through Chinese passport control. The official was friendly and the necessary stamp was forthcoming. We walked through the customs area with no problems. Waiting just outside the station was a smiley lady from the local tourism board, holding a board saying "Glenn Livett". Having welcomed us to Shanghai, she led us round the side of the station to a waiting MPV and we drove off to our hotel to check in.

Just as getting the China visa had been simple and painless, so was the process of getting in. The horror stories on the web about stroppy border guards, lengthy luggage searches and problems like guide books being confiscated because their maps showed Taiwan in a different colour from China, proved to be hyperbole, just as the visa tales had. We're refreshed and happy, not at all stressed and, most important of all we're finally in China!

p.s. Blogspot is not currently being blocked in China, so we can post about how much we are enjoying being here!

Map of Day 121

Day 121
Hong Kong to Shanghai

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, March 25, 2007 Hong Kong Hong Kong / Macau Macau

Final preparations for China

Tsim Sha Tsui neon [Enlarge]

The immigration queues at the Macau ferry terminal had been so long when we arrived, that we didn't want to take any risks getting delayed and missing our boat, so we got to the port nice and early for our 15:15 sailing back to Hong Kong. Naturally sod's law applies under these circumstances, and so the immigration process turned out to be quick and easy, and we found ourselves in the departure lounge 90 minutes early with nothing to do. An earlier boat was departing, and so on the off chance that they'd let us on, we approached the desk with our tickets. They barely even glanced at them, before attaching a sticker onto each ticket showing a seat assignment, and waving us through. Excellent! We just got to our seats before the boat began to move.

At the Hong Kong ferry terminal we paused only to top up our Octopus cards (electronic money cards which you load up with cash and then wave at a reader on every form of public transport except taxis, and even in some restaurants and shops), then went downstairs to the convenient subway station from where we caught a train across the island to the Wanchai/Causeway Bay area and our new hotel. It's so easy to get around in Hong Kong. There's always an easy alternative to walking or getting a taxi.

Our China tour starts this afternoon. We booked it with a company based in Xi'an, They arranged our train tickets from Hong Kong to Shanghai and said they would have them delivered to our hotel in Hong Kong. Since we didn't think we could trust that anything delivered to Chungking Mansions would actually get to us, we booked a more traditional hotel for our last two nights here. Sure enough, an envelope containing two tickets was waiting for us at reception when we checked in to The Charterhouse Hotel. After our last experience with a pre-booked tour, where we were abandoned overnight in cold Turkish bus stations and generally messed around at every stage, we were apprehensive that we would once again end up feeling that it would have been a lot less hassle to do everything ourselves. But so far everything is going to plan with Travel China Guide.

We've been watching the weather reports for mainland China with some interest over the past few weeks, and we saw a couple of weeks ago that Beijing (which is in the far north of China) experienced a heavy snowfall. By the time we reach Beijing it will be a month later, and hopefully spring will have sprung enough to make more snow unlikely. Nevertheless it's probably going to be colder than we've had it for some time, especially since we'll be staying up a mountain later this week at Huangshan. We no longer had our jumpers (US: sweaters), long ago given away to a grateful cleaner in Goa. So for once we actually wanted to visit a mall, to find some more warm clothes. We went across the road to the mall at Times Square.

Glenn found a jumper easily. Just like he would do at home if he wanted a simple, reasonably priced jumper, he went to the quintessentially British and übersensible Marks and Spencer. Within moments he had found the reasonably priced jumpers section and was perusing a choice of five different styles: cashmere blend, acrylic, or cotton, round- or v-neck, with contrasting trim, ribbed or plain. In the end he opted for a supersoft v-neck acrylic (so quicker drying!) which boasted on the label that the yarn was anti-pill, i.e. it won't go bobbly as quickly as acrylic jumpers usually do. Whether it will survive longer than our socks—we've gone through three pairs between us so far—remains to be seen. The best thing was that it was in the sale and only cost us 150 Hong Kong dollars (GBP 9.76 / USD 19.20)

So that was Glenn sorted. Finding a jumper for Isla should have been just as easy. As in every mall in the world, there are five womenswear shops for every menswear one, but as usual they are all so ridiculously fashion obsessed that at the time of looking, the only type of women's jumper available in the entire mall came with puff-sleeves, plastic buttons the size of saucers, or some form of frill or runching. Yes, The Eighties are back in Hong Kong in a big way! And to think that one of the reasons we left home was to get away from the return of surely the worst decade in the entire history of human fashion. The only thing we didn't see was huge shoulder pads—are they back in fashion back home yet? Anyway, we covered all eight floors of the mall, and Isla got all pink-in-the-face from dashing in and out of changing rooms hoping that things would look better on her than they did on the hanger. They never did. About 19:30 we took a pit-stop and went for a spaghetti carbonara and a beer at the nearest branch of Spaghetti House. Refilling our empty tummies and resting our aching feet gave us a new lease of life and we decided that instead of getting a jumper, Isla would buy a new shirt to replace her now somewhat stained and tatty Rohan one that she'd started the journey with. We went back up to the North Face shop and bought a very nice, hi-tech, quick drying shirt that we'd seen several hours earlier, again a bargain sale item. So why didn't we just buy a North Face fleece too? Firstly, because we'll probably be getting rid of it again in a few weeks, and secondly because when you only have one outer garment, you need it to cover every eventuality. It must be warm and smart and casual and lightweight and quick drying and cheap and not too spot the Western tourist—something, in other words, which is boring. If it gets really cold in mainland China, Isla will either buy the first piece of knitwear she can find, put both her T-shirts on under her shirt, or steal Glenn's jumper.

The following day we headed across the island again towards the Central–Mid-Levels Escalator to visit Flow second-hand bookshop. We're leaving the scope of our current guidebook so, like all guidebooks that have gone before, it can't come with us any further. We hoped to replace it with something to help us master a little of the Chinese language. We checked that Flow buys books as well as selling them, then we set about browsing the shelves. As we were looking an American couple came in. They had seven paperback fiction books to get rid of and asked what Flows would pay for them. The answer was 35 dollars (GBP 2.28 / USD 4.48) for the lot, five dollars each. This was about a fifth of the price that they would go back on sale for. The couple didn't negotiate, they just wandered off moaning about it. Eventually we settled on a funny old book about Chinese characters and something a little newer with a CD and pinyin translations. The combined price of the two items was 133 dollars. We worked out that we had paid the equivalent of 70 dollars for our guidebook when we bought it second hand in Bangkok, so we reckoned we'd do well if we got half that—it's got a bit battered around the edges with us over the past month, and besides, we don't begrudge the shop a fair profit. It's been a while since India and our bartering skills haven't seen much action for a while—did we still have it? Of course—bargaining is like riding a bike! We got 33 dollars for it, leaving us with a nice round 100 to pay for the Chinese books.

Finally we topped up on toothpaste and conditioner. Not that it won't be possible to buy usual everyday things there, but it's easier in Hong Kong where English is an official language and we can easily find familiar brands. So now we are all sorted for the train ride to Shanghai. It's going to be a 26 hour marathon—our longest transport experience ever—and after so much planning and anticipation, we will finally get to use the first entry of our double entry Chinese visa! We have got two bunks in a four-bunk 'soft-sleeper' compartment (the second of three classes). We've even got some Western biscuits to share with our companions as ice breakers. Hopefully, assuming they're Chinese, they won't have brought anything too strange to share with us.

Incidentally, we've been led to believe that Blogger's blogspot domain (the blogging platform and domain that we use) is blocked in China from time to time. It was most recently blocked in February this year and as far as we understand is still blocked. It is possible therefore that this will be our last post for a while. We will keep writing the posts on the laptop though, so if it all goes quiet, look out for a flood of new posts sent from South Korea on 25th April! And as for why we need a second entry into China? Hopefully, by then we will have used it and all will be revealed.

Map of Day 119

Day 119
Macau to Hong Kong

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, March 23, 2007 Macau Macau

Quick visit to Macau

Grand Lisboa Casino [Enlarge]

As we skimmed effortlessly across the surface of the Pearl River delta on the hydrofoil ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, we gave up trying to see anything out of the salt-encrusted windows and turned our attention to the screens in the cabin which were showing an episode of Planet's Funniest Animals. It's amazing how often this show crops up. It seems to have been successfully franchised to every transport operator in the world. After the fifty minute journey we sped under one of Macau's inter-island bridges and docked. The place is an ex-Portuguese colony, and sure enough it immediately felt southern European: as we disembarked and entered the immigration hall we saw that it was packed with thousands of visitors, all languishing in a badly organised queuing system leading to the passport control booths, of which only half were open. It was a big contrast from Hong Kong's orderliness. And we came midweek when it's at its quietest!

Some facts about Macau

  • Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) of China. One implication of this is that is has a proper international frontier with the Chinese mainland and sets its own visa policy. Just like in Hong Kong, we were visa-free.
  • The name Macau comes from Ama, the goddess of the sea and gao, the Portuguese for 'port'. Over time Amagao became Magao, then Macao/Macau. So it has the same name as Margao in Goa, India, which is where the train from Mumbai dropped us off 66 days ago.
  • In 1847 the Portuguese legalised gambling in Macau and the industry has grown to the point where Macau's gambling industry turns over more per year than the one in Las Vegas.
  • Back in the 1980s the Portuguese offered to hand Macau back to China, but China refused to accept it. Macau only returned to the Motherland when Britain did a deal on returning Hong Kong.
  • Macau is small. The territory's main peninsula, not counting the islands of Taipa and Coloane, is smaller than Hong Kong's new airport: 8.7 km2 (2150 acres) versus 12.48 km2 (3083 acres)!
  • Macau has yet another different currency, the pataca. One pataca is worth almost exactly the same as one Hong Kong dollar. Dollars and patacas are both legal tender in Macau, but you can only use dollars in Hong Kong.

Facts aside it's difficult to sum up Macau. The word 'weird' would definitely feature in our description. Certainly Macau is a place best seen by night when the monstrous carbuncle-like gold-coloured fun palaces metamorphose into monstrous carbuncle-like neon-clad fun palaces. By night it is harder to see the newly-cast-in-concrete attractions on the harbourside, comprising a volcano, a fort and a 'Roman amphitheatre'. This is a good thing. By the way, we learned in Turkey that an amphitheatre is a full circle or oval (i.e. a double theatre). This one is a semicircle and is therefore a theatre, not an amphitheatre. We would have pointed this out to anybody who might have listened, but we didn't know the Cantonese for "sorry to be pedantic, but…"

In the casinos, we stuck to the time-honoured advice of "only risk what you can afford to lose", and didn't risk anything. By day we walked round the Grand Prix circuit, which in many ways is better than Monaco's, visited a couple of museums and tried the Macanese cuisine—Portuguese-Cantonese fusion food that puts, for example, fried rice with salt cod. It tastes better than it sounds! We also took a cable car to the top of the Macau peninsula's only hill to see the Guia Fort and lighthouse.

A couple of days in Macau is plenty to see its sights unless you're in the market for some serious gambling. We're heading back to Hong Kong again this afternoon, to pick up our train tickets to Shanghai and sort out the final arrangements for the next three weeks in China.

Map of Day 116

Day 116
Hong Kong to Macau

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 Hong Kong Hong Kong

Some more things we did in Hong Kong

Des Voeux Road, Hong Kong [Enlarge]

Hong Kong is geographically part of the Guangdong (Canton) province of China, and so its language and cuisine are Cantonese. Naturally we felt obliged to sample a bit of the local fare, and what better way to try Cantonese food than to have a spot of dim sum? The locals eat these little steamed snacks for breakfast and/or lunch, and we stumbled across an excellent, very reasonable, and very popular restaurant called Mu Dan Ting in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon. Everything is highrise here so like most restaurants it doesn't have a ground floor level, just a lectern-style stand on the street with a menu for you to peruse and a member of staff to point you to the lift and send you up to the correct floor. It turns out that Mu Dan Ting is a popular place for Kowloon office workers to go for lunch. For just over 100 Hong Kong dollars (GBP 6.52 / USD 12.80) we filled ourselves up with a selection of delicious dim sum and drank as much jasmine tea as we could.

We're getting better at the chopsticks, but the bottom line is it's embarrassing using them in front of Chinese people. Chinese babies can handle them better than us. The locals are very polite and don't laugh at us, at least not to our faces, but we know they think we're from an uncivilised culture where you sit down to eat wielding the same implements as a butcher uses. Still, we are now skilled enough to eat our noodles with chopsticks, and even cashew nuts in special slippery sauce.

We followed up our tasty lunch with a trip to the space museum and planetarium. On the way to the museum we discovered one of Hong Kong's surprise malls. Hong Kong has more shopping malls than any city could ever need, and you come across them just when you're least expecting it. This one was in the subway under Salisbury Road. You descend the stairs expecting it to be like any other simple subway to cross the road, but then it opens out in to a cavernous underworld of designer boutiques and food outlets. Shopping is such a serious business here that there's even a network of elevated, covered walkways linking the buildings on Hong Kong island so that you can keep out of the rain or sun and away from the streets. Typhoons, heatwaves, rush-hour traffic: nothing need spoil your spending!

We discovered our next surprise mall the very next day. This one was up a mountain. One reason that Hong Kong real estate is so expensive is that only a thin strip of land on the coast is suitable for building on. Continuous coastal reclamation is creating new land, but fundamentally the problem is that there's a mountain range right behind the city. A popular viewpoint in these hills is The Peak, to which some enterprising soul built a funicular railway (the Peak Tram) in the nineteenth century to take tourists and pleasure-seeking colonialists to the top. No doubt the Victorians were content with a cream tea and a nice view, but these days the modern visitor demands more, so there's a mall at the top. Obviously. And this is no small, token-gesture mall—it's the real thing.

The Peak is well worth a visit even if you're not in the mood for shopping. We decided to take the scenic route from Kowloon, starting with the famous Star Ferry across the harbour. You can pay HKD 2.20 for the top deck or HKD 1.70 for the lower deck. The extra three pence (6 US cents) doesn't seem to buy you anything extra, in case you're wondering. From the ferry pier we walked for ten minutes across town past the beautiful No. 2 International Finance Centre (Two IFC), currently the tallest building in Hong Kong and fifth tallest in the world. A little way further inland we reached the foot of the Central–Mid-Levels Escalator. This is an 800 metre system of escalators and travelators that whisk you all the way up the hill from Central District to the Mid Levels, above SoHo district. It's the world's longest escalator system, apparently, and it's free to use, taking seventeen minutes to get to the top. In the morning rush-hour it runs downhill, then from 10:20 it runs uphill.

From the top of the escalator, amongst the commuter suburbs, we walked through the botanical and zoological gardens, again another freebie, stopping to gawp at and be gawped at by various comedy primates and a sleepy leopard, and worked our way back down the hill towards the Peak Tram terminus. It was a long way round, but worth it to see some extra Hong Kong sights on the way. The view from The Peak was stunning, although it was a bit cloudy; the top ten floors of the Two IFC tower were actually in the clouds.

Beach on Lamma Island [Enlarge]

Hong Kong S.A.R. has many rural islands and we didn't want to leave without visiting one. Yesterday we took the short trip to Lamma Island—we chose this one mainly because there are ferries to and from villages on either side of it, with a pleasant walk across the island linking the two ports. The island is car-free. Most people use bicycles to get around, and the local council has a fleet of golf buggies for jobs like refuse collection and park maintenance. Another thing the island has is a huge power station generating electricity for virtually all of Hong Kong's residents. It's a bit of an eyesore in the otherwise pristine landscape of golden beaches and jungled hills, but something has to drive all that neon. Our plan for the end of our walk had been to have lunch at one of the many excellent fish restaurants in the village of Sok Kwu Wan. However the restaurants were all the type of establishment where the menu is still alive when you sit down, swimming around happily in bubbling tanks. It wasn't long since breakfast and we weren't really hungry—and at a time when we didn't need to eat, it just seemed wrong to be the cause the demise of another creature. So we caught the first ferry back to Hong Kong.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new Favourite City. Just eleven days after leaving Bangkok, it has sadly been knocked from the top spot (but only just). There is so much to do here and we wish we could stay for much longer.

We're off now to catch the TurboJet high-speed ferry to Macau on the other side of the Pearl River delta. Macau is another former European colony (Portuguese) which has recently returned to Chinese control as a Special Administrative Region. It has had a very different history and culture to Hong Kong, and it will be interesting to compare the two cities. In a few days we'll be back in Hong Kong again for one last look, because we're due to take the train from here to Shanghai on 25th March.

Sunday, March 18, 2007 Hong Kong Hong Kong

Symphony of Lights

To start off your night-time entertainment you can't do much better than the Symphony of Lights, in which the buildings of Hong Kong Island put on a musical performance for spectators across on the waterfront in Kowloon. The buildings in Central District, which by day are sober structures housing the headquarters of international banks and electronics giants, reveal their alter egos at night as they power themselves up and you see that they are decked out from head to toe in neon with huge floodlights on their roofs.

The fifteen-minute show happens every evening at 20:00. The towers put on their very best performance, each one trying to be more sparkly and have more colours and ridiculous lighting effects than the others. The new International Finance Centre (IFC) towers don't join in with the whole neon thing—at first glance it seems that their architect rose above the pressure to make them flash and instead chose to bathe them in simple white light. But no, instead of neon they have powerful green lasers on their roofs, and it seems that they just can't resist joining in once the fun starts. After the climax of the show the buildings go back to normal as abruptly as they began, as if nothing had happened.

The assembled crowd couldn't help but applaud. The show was really good. Video below.

Thursday, March 15, 2007 Hong Kong Hong Kong

Buying Malarone in Hong Kong

We left the UK with enough Malarone (our chosen antimalarial) for three months. Malarone is fully licensed in the UK for short trips, but only licensed on a named patient basis (i.e. at the discretion of individual doctors) for periods of between 28 days and three months. So we felt pretty special to have been allowed as much as we had. However after 32 days in India and 27 in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam supplies were running a little low. The advice on malarial risk, both verbally from several health professionals and on the internet on various websites, is highly variable. On whether Goa is malarial, for example, sources we have seen have varied between stating that there is "no risk" of contracting malaria in Goa, to there is a "significant risk"—including the more serious (often fatal) strain of the disease. So our strategy has been to take the tablets and enjoy the peace of mind.

Our research suggested that Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore are the only places in Asia where you can currently get Malarone. So our top priority for our first full day in Hong Kong was to contact the source we had found on the government's travel health service website. They say that they can supply "Atovaquone and Proguanil" (i.e. Malarone). After trying unsuccessfully to phone them we decided just to head over to their office and see what happened.

We got off the subway and quickly found the travel clinic. Normally you need an appointment but it was so quiet that the doctor was able to see us immediately. We explained where we were planning to travel next and that we would like some more Malarone and he was happy to prescribe it. We paid out 315 Hong Kong Dollars each (GBP 20.66 / USD 40.32) for the five minute consultation [Nice little earner! But we were out of other options] and HKD 1,070 each (GBP 70.17 / USD 136.96) for the pills, and within a couple of minutes we had two boxes each containing 29 one-a-day Malarone tablets.

If you've arrived on this blog because you're searching for Malarone in Hong Kong: here's how to get it. Take the MTR (subway) to Sham Shui Po (on the Tsuen Wan Line in northern Kownloon) and walk to Cheung Sha Wan Government Offices, 303 Cheung Sha Wan Road. Go to the first floor and ask for the Travel Clinic. They also apparently have an office in Wan Chai on the Hong Kong side, but we haven't tried it. The supplies we got appear to have come from Canada.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007 Hong Kong Hong Kong

Hard landing in Hong Kong

Chungking Mansions [Enlarge]

Usually we don't like arriving into a new city at night, but after one look at Hong Kong we knew it didn't matter. Public transport and shops seem to be open all night, and as for the problem of not being able to find your way around the dark streets, Hong Kong has just one word for you: neon! It's amazing what a few tens of millions of gas-filled tubes can achieve.

Hong Kong's shiny new airport is on a shiny new island just off Lantau Island, a fair way out from the action. We caught the airport bus into town as it's the cheapest and simplest way of getting to our hostel. The bus had a multilingual commentary of where we were, along with a dot matrix display of the upcoming stops for good measure. It was impossible to get lost. We just listened for the announcement that we had reached Tsim Sha Tsui district, pressed the bell and got off.

Our hostel is one of ninety guesthouses in a building known as Chungking Mansions. The mansions are on the main thoroughfare through Kowloon, Nathan Road, and are easy to find—just look for the most dilapidated, enormous block of early 1960s concrete that you can see. Then check for a ridiculous number of touts on the street trying to persuade you to stay at their hostel, and go on in. We had booked a room at the Oriental Pearl Hostel on Hostelworld. We had no illusions that it was going to be glamorous or luxurious, but we had chosen it because it had good reviews, and its description on Hostelworld promised that it would be spotlessly clean and spacious, with extra large beds.

We had discovered when trying to book it that there is no really cheap accommodation in Hong Kong. The most basic ensuite hostel room will cost you at least twenty pounds (40 USD) per night; a cheap hotel room will be at least twice that price. Once we booked the room, we got an email back from the hostel to say that we could have a ten percent discount if we paid for the whole seven days in advance through PayPal. This was a bit ominous—they already had a guarantee against no-shows from Hostelworld, so why were they so keen for us to pay the whole lot before seeing the room? We chose not to take advantage of the discount and when we turned up at around midnight we said we would pay for the first night only, then pay the rest the following day. They weren't keen.

We were shown to our room. Reception is in A block, floor three. The room was in E block, floor eleven. Having queued to get into the tiny, slow elevator up to floor three we now had to wait for it again, go back down to the ground floor, walk through a labyrinth of shops and touts and shady corners and general dodgy dealings to the base of E block, queue for the elevator again and take the long ride up to the eleventh floor. Then we found out why they had wanted our money upfront. The room was big enough for two small beds, but there was not enough room to walk around them. The TV was mounted on the wall because there was nowhere else for it to be. The fridge was full of mould. The bathroom was the size of a small shower cubicle. To have a shower your best bet was to sit on the toilet. The room was filthy, as was the bathroom. The view from the window was of a similarly disgusting tower (another part of Chungking Mansions) a few metres away. We found out later that we were lucky to have a window at all! On the plus side however, there was a network cable hanging from the ceiling. We attached it to the laptop and had another look at the Hostelworld website to see what we had been promised.

From the Oriental Pearl's own description on Hostelworld:

… As we see that almost guest rooms in Hong Kong are too small with tiny beds. We especially design spacious rooms with king size beds. We possess all the merits of other hostels, and at the same time, we guarantee an absolutely silent and new environment in every room we have. Rooms are designed according to the level of a 3-star hotel. Both the room and the size of the bed in our hostel is the largest among all hostels in Hong Kong … We have comfortable guest rooms equipped with coffee and tea making facilities, free local direct-line telephone, IDD, color television with in-house movie channel, cable and satellite television, individually controlled air-conditioning, mini refrigerator, hairdryers, 100Mbps high-speed internet access with wireless, mini sofa, clothes chests, reading desk, new 3-star hotel bed sheet and bath towel, bath tub, bath liquid, microwave. There is a self catering kitchen, a washing machine, water machine, 24 hours hot water for shower … We clean rooms and change the bed sheet every day, rooms are spotlessly clean. For the common bathrooms, the staff clean them nearly every an hour! All staff can speak fluent English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese language … Guest is provided with personal digital access key tag.

Sounds great, doesn't it? We have rewritten the above paragraph to reflect the true situation. See below.

… As we see that almost guest rooms in Hong Kong are too small with tiny beds. We give tiny beds too. We possess all the merits of other hostels, and at the same time, we guarantee an equally filthy environment in every room we have. Rooms are designed according to the level of a 1-star hotel. Both the room and the size of the bed in our hostel is as small as other hostels in Hong Kong … We have uncomfortable guest rooms equipped with coffee and tea making facilities, free local direct-line telephone, IDD, color television with in-house movie channel, cable and satellite television (poor selection of channels and bad reception), individually controlled air-conditioning, mouldy and dirty mini refrigerator, hairdryers, 100Mbps high-speed internet access with wireless, mini sofa, clothes chests, reading desk, new 3-star hotel bed sheet and bath towel, bath tub, bath liquid, microwave. There is a self catering kitchen, a washing machine, water machine, 24 hours hot water for shower if you switch on the heater in the corridor and wait fifteen minutes, and hope that nobody switches it off without you noticing… We clean rooms and change the bed sheet every day, rooms are spotlessly clean. For the common bathrooms, the staff clean them nearly every an hour! All staff can speak fluent English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese language … Guest is provided with key.

We called reception and after a while we got the manager to come to our room (it was gone midnight by now). We explained that we had not been expecting hotel quality accommodation, but that we had booked a room based on his description on Hostelworld and we expected him to supply a room which met this description. Unfortunately his grasp of English was very bad (all staff fluent in English, remember) and so we struggled to get across to him that his room was actually fine—better than many we have stayed in—but when we are told in advance that we will get something in return for our money, we want it.

His argument was that the description on the site was for his best room, and obviously we couldn't expect the standard rooms to have these features. We showed him the description, which clearly says "Room facilities and service", not "Deluxe room facilities and service", and we made it clear that we were going to get what he had promised us. After a lot of shouting from both sides he realised that we were not going to back down. He said that in the morning he would move us to a deluxe room for no extra cost. We agreed and let him go.

This morning he came to our room at 10:30 and took us to our new accommodation on the third floor, which is clean, large (for a hostel), has a street view, a bath, a wardrobe and a chair (which we guess is what the manager means by mini-sofa). At least now we can do the washing and hang it somewhere other than directly above the bed. For the money we are very happy, but that's because we're in a deluxe room having paid for a standard. We still have to run the gauntlet of touts to get into or out of the building—now that we don't have our luggage with us they can see that we don't need accommodation, so instead they're touting watches and handbags, and tailored suits. Do we look like we're in the market for a nice new suit?! And because we're on the third floor we can bypass the lifts and use the back stairs. Once we're fully inside or fully outside, it's fine. And we're loving Hong Kong already!

Incidentally, Chungking Mansions is so infamous it even has its own entry on Wikipedia.

Map of Day 109

Day 109
Hanoi to Hong Kong

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007 Vietnam Vietnam

Water puppets, stuffed pigs and dead presidents

Waiting for a fare [Enlarge]

There are easily enough things to do in Hà Nội to keep you occupied for three days. On our first full day here we decided first to take a stroll to the nearby Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which is the old town's main landmark. It didn't take us long to discover that 'strolling' and 'old town' are not words that can be used in the same sentence. Instead, we ducked and weaved through the traffic, dodging street stalls, hawkers, parked mopeds, moving mopeds, cycle-rickshaws and chihuahuas. The streets were not as clean as Bangkok's but compared with India it was a breeze. We learned later that a law came into force last year banning parking on all pavements (US: sidewalks) less than three metres wide. Either the law has been repealed, or it is being completely ignored. It is physically impossible to walk down the pavements on most streets because of the thousands of parked mopeds which line them. A lot of shops even have ramps up the kerbs and into their doors so that the shop owners can ride their mopeds through into the back room to park them!

Bridge to Den Ngoc Son [Enlarge]

We finally reached the lake and things got a lot calmer. On an island in the lake is a Buddhist temple, reached by a red, wooden, flag-decorated bridge. We paid our 8,000 đồng entry fee (0.26 GBP / 0.50 USD) and crossed the bridge.

Like all the temples we've seen so far this one was full of a mixture of devout pilgrims and bemused tourists—but here there were also a lot of chilled out locals who had come to find some peace and quiet on the island and get in a game of xiàngqí (Chinese chess) with their mates. As well as the temple, the small island had a range of shopportunities to rival even Turkey! We passed on the chance to buy a Good Morning, Vietnam t-shirt or an army issue cap, and we went back onto the street to walk the rest of the way round the lake. The lake acts as a huge traffic island controlled (in theory) by traffic lights. At the lake's far end we found a particularly busy corner and Glenn got the camera out to shoot a 'traffic chaos' photo. As we stood there, a traffic policeman appeared from nowhere, and after a minute sauntered into the middle of the melée. Then he climbed up onto a circular podium, and just stood to attention! We expected him to spring into action, arms flailing as he directed the traffic, but instead he just stood there, absolutely motionless. The only difference his presence made to the flow of traffic was that it now had to squeeze around his podium. It wasn't an improvement, but it did make a good photograph.

Traffic policeman [Enlarge]

Next day (Sunday), the first thing we did was to visit the Museum of Revolution. The exhibitions here track Vietnamese history from the French colonial occupation in the 19th century, through the inception of the Communist Party in 1930, liberation from France in 1954, the war against America culminating in Ho Chi Minh's glorious victory (which he achieved six years after his death), and finally reunification of the country in 1975. It's very much an old-school museum, not an interactive activity centre in sight. The main interest factor lies in seeing the Northern Vietnamese perspective on their recent history, which is (unsurprisingly) a lot different from what we're taught in the west. It was a reminder that there are two sides to every story. Before leaving the museum, we looked for the loos (US: bathrooms). They were signposted down a long corridor, at the end of which were a pair of strange exhibits, invisible to anyone who didn't venture all the way to the end of the corridor: a couple of glass cases containing a large dead pig and two equally dead chickens. It seemed that they had not been expertly stuffed, because they smelled very bad indeed. In the pig's cabinet, a crowd of dead flies lay on the floor underneath the poor animal's head. Obviously even they hadn't been able to stand the stink. We're not sure why these two exhibits had found themselves in the Museum of Revolution, but we didn't hang around long enough to find out. We went to the loo quickly and made a hasty exit.

One thing that almost every tourist does in Hà Nội is to see the famous múa rối nước (water puppet show). This is a centuries-old artform which used to be put on in villages during the floods of the monsoon season. Now it takes place in a normal-looking theatre, but the stage is flooded and the puppeteers have to stand for the whole show waist-deep in water. We booked tickets for the 17:15 show on Sunday, which was the fourth of seven that day. It wasn't too surprising then that the musicians seated in a small balcony to the left of the stage looked a little bored. The hour-long show began with some folk tunes and then the puppets emerged and began their skilful dancing. Unfortunately the show was entirely in Vietnamese so we didn't understand too much of what was going on, but basically it consisted of scenes from traditional Vietnamese life being played out: everyday things like fishing, rice planting, and catching frogs; important events like a college graduate returning home to the village; and mythical stories like phoenixes and dragons dancing.

Monday is museum-and-attraction closure day in Vietnam, so we stayed in for most of the day and made good use of the hotel's free wireless internet sorting out some bits and pieces to do with our tour of China, and working out how we're going to get from there to Japan via South Korea without flying. We were just considering what to do for dinner when all the lights went out. We're used to power cuts. We had power problems in Scotland before our trip started, then we had more in İstanbul, Goa, Jaipur and Delhi. We didn't want to stray too far outside in the darkness—the traffic is scary enough when the streetlights are working—but we were getting very hungry. So we walked out and ducked into the first restaurant we found, almost opposite our hotel. All the lights were off (obviously) and each table was lit by a cosy candle. It looked very inviting; busy, but with space for two more. We went in, sat down and ordered a couple of Bia Hà Nội (the local beer). We had a very tasty dinner and were just lingering over the last dregs of our second beer when the power came back. There was a cheer from inside the restaurant and much horn-honking outside.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum [Enlarge]

Today is our final day in Vietnam, but as our flight to Hong Kong is not until 19:10, we had more than enough time this morning to pay President Ho Chi Minh a visit. Yes, he's been dead for the last 35 years, but every morning from 08:00 to 11:00 you can visit him in his glass tomb within his huge granite mausoleum. Before he died, Uncle Ho requested that he be cremated, but his wishes were ignored, and instead he was pickled by his devoted subjects. The mausoleum is imposing yet serene: a bit like the Taj Mahal's more sinister twin; built of dark grey polished granite and very communist in style. We joined the queue which snaked round the corner and stretched a full block away from the mausoleum. A few thousand respectful Vietnamese pigrims and curious Westerners had obviously had the same idea as us—Ho Chi Minh is still a crowd puller! It took us 49 minutes to shuffle two-by-two round the corner, along the street (stopping to be relieved of our camera and phone at security), up the steps, round the corridor, up a flight of stairs and into the room containing the tomb. It then took less than one minute to be herded through one door, be physically manhandled by the attending Vietnamese army guards around three sides of the tomb, and then be ejected from the other door. Presumably the use of force is necessary so that the queue can be kept moving at a reasonable pace. The president was lit by a strange reddish light inside his glass-walled coffin and was attended by a total of some ten to fifteen guards: four to actually stand guard around the coffin, the rest to do crowd control or stand to attention in the other parts of the building. We were one of the last few people to be let in for the day. When we emerged back into the daylight the queue had vanished, and some guards soon came out to roll up the red carpet at the entrance and close the big wooden doors.

We went over to a bistro near the Opera House for some lunch, after which it was time to head back to the hotel to pick up our bags and wait for our taxi to the airport. We have enjoyed our short visit to Vietnam, and feel that there is a lot more to see and do here than we have managed. This evening we are flying with Vietnam Airways to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, former British colony and gateway to the People's Republic of China.

Saturday, March 10, 2007 Thailand Thailand / Vietnam Vietnam

Flight to Hanoi

Suvarnabhumi Airport [Enlarge]

The Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Hà Nội (Hanoi) was clean, comfortable and on time. Air Asia is a proper budget carrier like RyanAir and EasyJet in the UK (except it has good customer service). It doesn't do allocated seating, but we managed to get a seat with extra legroom in the exit row, so the passenger scrum actually worked to our advantage.

We discovered that northern Vietnam on a March evening is a little chilly. It felt even more so because we were coming from the heat and humidity of Bangkok. Leaving the airport, we dodged the taxi touts and soon found our man holding a board with Glenn's name on it (the airport is about 35 kilometres from the city centre so we had booked the hotel's transfer service to avoid any taxi-related issues). The guy led us to his car and we set off onto the expressway. We had switched back to driving on the right again—Thailand is the only country in South East Asia which drives on the left. The landscape outside was pretty much the standard fare of flat paddy fields and tiny shack-like houses, but surrounding them were huge advertising boards with laser displays and lights. It seemed that nobody in Hà Nội owns a car, as 99 percent of vehicles buzzing around us were motorbikes or mopeds, all of which had at least two people on board, sometimes four or five. It was pretty weird.

As we neared Hà Nội proper we saw the first few French-style houses: very tall (five or six stories) but with an amazingly narrow frontage and lots of balconies. They looked like they should have been part of a terrace, but that their neighbours had been demolished to leave them standing isolated. We learned later that narrow houses are common here because of an old tax which was based on the width of the front of the building. A bit like the window tax back home which caused so many windows in Georgian houses to be bricked up.

Hanoi Elegance Hotel [Enlarge]

We had booked our room at the Hanoi Elegance Hotel on Hostelworld. It is located in the heart of the Old Town, and turned out to be very clean and welcoming, although most rooms (including ours) do not have windows. We dumped our bags and headed out for a late dinner. On the hotel's recommendation we tried Little Hanoi a few blocks away, which is a backpacker-friendly place with a good line in Vietnamese dishes for beginners, mostly based on noodles. We chose the chicken noodles, which came with loads of stir-fried vegetables and a pair of chopsticks, and were delicious. Back in the room we had a very long, very good sleep (probably because it didn't get light in the morning in our windowless room) and we woke up too late to get any breakfast.

Map of Day 105

Day 105
Bangkok to Hanoi

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, March 09, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Leaving Thailand

Khlong Mahanak [Enlarge]

Our time in Bangkok has drawn to a close. We've loved it here, although some of our love for Thailand is probably due to the fact that we came here straight after our bad experience in India. We've met many people who all described Bangkok as dirty, smelly, too busy and polluted. We can't believe they're talking about the same city.

After we picked up our Vietnam visas we decided that we didn't have time to do justice to an overland trip through Cambodia and Vietnam. We've done travelling on bad roads, and spending entire days and nights on board buses and trains. It's worthwhile if you do a journey then spend a few days at your destination before moving on, but we would not have time to stop because of the need to get to Hong Kong and source some more Malarone antimalarial tablets. To travel the length of Vietnam's reunification railway takes about 34 hours; we could split it into chunks of six to ten hours per day and do it in four legs, but we still wouldn't see much of the places we went through en route because we would be travelling all the time and only stopping to sleep. We concluded that we might as well pick one destination and fly straight to it—then we will be able to spend time actually seeing the place. So we chose Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, for no good reason. We are going to fly there later today with Air Asia for 6100 baht for both of us (GBP 96.43 / USD 186.23), which is cheaper than we could do it overland. We will have to leave Cambodia for the next time we sell everything to go travelling.

We've spent the last few days enjoying Bangkok (our new favourite city) and trying all of the different ways of getting around. Probably the biggest complaint that people have about the city is the clogged-up roads. It's true, the traffic is bad, but you never need to travel by road! Firstly there are abundant river taxis up and down the winding Chao Phraya river. You can buy a hop-on-hop-off tourist ticket if you like, but there's no need—at 100 baht (GBP 1.58 / USD 3.05) it is overpriced given that a journey on the normal service from the furthest north pier, Thewet, to Saphan Taksin in the centre costs only 13 baht (GBP 0.21 / USD 0.40).

Riding a torpedo on Khlong Mahanak [Enlarge]

Then there are the boats which speed along the famous Khlongs (canals). These have been our most used method of transport because there is a stop right next to our hotel, serving the large wholesale clothes market in the Bobae Tower. From there we could speed directly to the 'National Stadium' skytrain station. Like regular narrow boats, but on steroids, they are often known as 'torpedos' because of the speed they travel at. They have tarpaulins along the sides, against which the passengers can find a little shelter behind against the spray coming over the bow and into the boat. Getting a face full of canal water is the only drawback of this method of transport. Again it's cheap: 8 baht each (GBP 0.13 / USD 0.24) for the journey we did most often. Just leap on and pay the crash-helmeted ticket collectors who cling to the outside of the boats.

The Bangkok Mass Transit System (skytrain) is fab. Elevated high above the traffic chaos it whisks you in near-silent, deliciously freezingly air conditioned comfort across the congested city centre. The Mass Rapid Transit (metro) is even newer than the skytrain. The only similarity between it and the London Underground is that they're both subterranean railways. Bangkok's metro is so clean and shiny that you want to take your shoes off in case you make dirty footprints, and like the skytrain it has such good-quality air conditioning that you never actually want to leave it. To be fair to the London Underground, it has been open for 140-odd years longer than Bangkok's metro, so it has had time to get a bit grubby.

People of Thailand and City of Bangkok: we think you're fab. We will definitely be back!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Thai cookery course

Ingredients for Thai cookery course [Enlarge]

There was one last thing that we wanted to do before leaving Thailand. We both love Thai food, but have never successfully made an authentic tasting dish at home despite numerous efforts—so we fancied taking a cookery class. No matter where you are in Thailand you are never far from a Thai Cookery School. Based on website and price we chose the Silom Thai Cooking School, and phoned on the off chance that they had space for us the very next day. They did, and when the proprietor Sanusi ('Nusi') picked us up from the hotel the next morning, we discovered we were the only students that day. He'd been full the day before, but we were about to get a private lesson, which meant that we could choose our own menu! In the taxi to the market, Nusi asked us what we wanted to make. Glenn said that learning about curries and soups would be a bonus, but personally he would be happy just to learn the secrets of his favourite Thai dessert (which he didn't know the name of, or even what was in it). He could only describe it: crunchy red balls with a slimy coating, in warm coconut milk. [Trust me, it's delicious!—Glenn.]

We stopped at the local market and Nusi led us through the various stalls, telling us all about the fresh produce on offer and dropping things into our baskets. He identified some of the hitherto unknown vegetables that we had previously seen in our Thai dishes. For instance, did you know that those crunchy green things like large peas which float in your green curry are actually aubergines (US: eggplants)?!

Fully stocked up and ready to go, it was a short walk back to Nusi's house, where he has a large open-air kitchen. We put on aprons and set to work thoroughly washing the vegetables and herbs we had bought. Then we sat down on the floor in another room where a huge heavy pestle and mortar, and two chopping boards and knives had been set out. Nusi showed us the ingredients needed for our first dish, tom kha gai, a spicy coconut-milk soup with chicken. We chopped and crushed our ingredients and then moved to the cooking area where coconut milk was already warming in a wok. All we had to do was to add the ingredients and simmer gently until the chicken was cooked right through. It was dead easy, even for Can't Cook Won't Cook Glenn, and the effort was all in the preparation. One of the ingredients was super-hot bird's eye chillies, and Nusi told us to add a whole chilli (per bowl of soup) if we liked it spicy, or half if we liked it milder. After nearly two months of eating first Indian curries and then the arguably even hotter Thai dishes, we thought we'd be daring, so we added about three quarters of a chilli each. The next four courses were the perennial favourite chicken with cashew nuts; then a salad with glass noodles; fish cakes with sweet chilli sauce; and finally green chicken curry. All of the above would work just as well with pork or beef, but presumably it was easier for Nusi to just have one type of meat on hand when there were just the two of us.

The best bit of course was the tasting and after every course we got to sit down and eat the product of our labours. So what was the result of the taste test on our three-quarter chilli tom kha gai? It was very nice, but it made us cry and break out in a sweat. Nusi's response was to say that most Thai people would have used around ten chillies if they'd been cooking for themselves. Pathetic Europeans.

The highlight of Glenn's day was undoubtedly learning how to make his dessert of red rubies (that's the proper term) in coconut milk. This is a dessert he's had in the UK as well as on this trip, but has never been able to identify what the rubies are. It consists of warm, sweet coconut milk and small red lumps. These are crisp in the middle, with the look and texture of watermelon, but they are gelatinous on the outside. We have always presumed that it must be some kind of melon or pomegranate that goes gelatinous when partially cooked in coconut milk. But now we know that the crispy lumps are diced water chestnut or turnip (!) soaked for twenty minutes in water with a little red food colouring. They are then drained and coated in tapioca flour before being added to a wok containing boiling water. The tapioca flour makes them go gelatinous on the outside. When they're cooked they float to the surface of the water, and you just scoop them out.

Incidentally, we asked Nusi what he thought the green caterpillars were, floating in the dessert at our Northern Thailand lunch buffet. He was sure they had simply been tapioca shapes.

Glenn wasn't all that bothered about coming along today because he hates cooking normally, but in the end he was glad he came. We both really enjoyed it. We can't wait to put our new skills into practice when we come home.

Friday, March 02, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Bangkok wildlife

Shark watching [Enlarge]

Yesterday we walked very slowly to the Vietnam embassy to collect our passports, but despite our best efforts we were still hot and sweaty by the time we arrived. It must be the humidity. Even on the hottest day in the UK (which is a lot hotter than the low thirties Celcius we're having here) it's possible to keep your cool so long as you don't rush. But here the thick, hot air gets in to every shadow and under every tree. There is no escape.

Picking up our visas was no problem. On the way back out of the embassy door with our freshly visa'd passports safely stowed, we met an American who was going to Vietnam to look for islands to buy. That's something we've yet to see on Rightmove. Come to think of it, maybe we could also be tempted by a Scaramanga-style hideaway! (Yes, we've found time to watch the James Bond DVD we bought on Monday.)

We were meeting Jeremy for dinner. We first met him at Agra station in India, and we shared a taxi to Jaipur with him and his friend Andy. He has an apartment in Bangkok and lives here for a few months each year. We were already on the right side of town, so it seemed pointless to go all the way back to the hotel before coming back out again in the evening. We found a great place to go for three or four hours: in the basement of the Paragon Mall there's a 10,000 square metre underwater world with penguins, sharks, rays, three metre long Mehkong catfish, called Siam Oceanworld… We had to go and see it, and it was really, really great. All our photos are here.

When we were fully fished out, we took the Skytrain to meet Jeremy. Last time we saw him was when we'd parted company with him and Andy at Jaipur station. He took us to one of his favourite Thai restaurants, tucked away down a side street where we would never have found it. We compared notes on India—his impressions on the place were pretty much identical to ours. He and Andy had fared no better than us after we parted, had also given up on Jaipur in disgust, and had flown to Goa for the rest of their fortnight's holiday. We don't blame them. It's a small sample, but it made us feel better to know that we weren't the only ones to really hate India.

After dinner Jeremy took us to see the infamous Phat Phong red light area of Bangkok where a string of girly shows compete for business along the street. Men standing outside the bars hold signs with 'menus' outlining their various offerings. Most intriguing were the 'ping pong' shows—we wondered what they were going to do with the ping pong balls. Interestingly Isla got as many offers to sample the delights of Phat Phong as Glenn and Jeremy did, but we all decided to pass on the opportunity. We didn't see any ladyboys either, but then again the whole point is that you don't realise they're ladyboys. And of course none of us were looking.

We took the Skytrain back to the end of the line and then walked the final few blocks to the hotel. This part of town was much quieter, and we were sharing the streets only with cockroaches, huge rats and stray cats, all digging through the rubbish which had been left out for collection overnight. Although night time, it was still oppressively hot as always.

A good day.