Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Weekends in China - Shenzhen & Guangzhou

Welcome to a pre-Christmas, bonus entry of the blog! Since our summer travels, we've been working hard - inspiring a generation of young Hong Kongers - but we have treated ourselves to a couple of weekends away up in the mainland. Firstly, Shenzhen, and then Guangzhou, two cities in the south of China, and strangely enough, after almost a year in HK, our first journeys across the border. So I guess technically... new country!

Our first venture up north was to Shenzhen in late October, a city just over the HK border, so less than an hour and a half from our front door. Although, it ended up taking us quite a bit longer...

You see, even though we're Hong Kong residents, you still need a visa to travel to the mainland, a visa that I had (because I'm so good and organised) but Aisling didn't. We had read online that there was a chance you could get a special temporary visa at the border if you're only going to Shenzhen, so we said we'd risk it. Alas, at the Lok Ma Chau border crossing, we were embarrassingly turned away at the immigration desk and had to do a walk of shame back into HK. Our weekend away had ended before it had even begun! We were told though, by a very helpful worker, that we might be able to get one at the other crossing point, about ten minutes down the road in Lo Wu. And he was right! Our Chinese weekend was back on track!

We only had like a day and a half here, so we just looked up a couple of things to visit - Window of the World and Splendid China - two miniature theme parks. The former with wonders from around the world - mini Leaning Tower, mini Statue of Liberty etc. and the latter with all of China's landmarks - mini Great Wall, mini Terracotta Warriors and all that kind of thing. They both just happened to be down the road from each other too, and we found a lovely and cheap hotel nearby, so we really had to do very little travelling all weekend. In the end, we may have only seen a small part of Shenzhen, but we saw so much of the world!

So, the first day after we arrived and got settled, we headed straight to Window of the World. And I've got to say, we loved the place! Yes, it was tacky and some of the miniatures were pretty poor, but we had a brilliant time! It's a great idea I think, as most people won't get a chance to see these places in the flesh. If it was done a bit better and given a bit more space, it could be excellent. We still had a laugh though (and got some amount of photos for the Frankie album too!).

The next day we went to Splendid China. As I said, it was pretty much the same thing again, just with Chinese landmarks. We didn't even recognise most of them, but it was still fun! And probably better laid out than Window of the World. It gave us a few places to note too when we do eventually make it up to see the rest of China. And spending the weekend walking around these miniature theme parks, not only made us feel like giants...

But also made Frankie look life sized!

In Splendid China, there was also a cultural village where you could see different Chinese practices and ways of life. It was mildly interesting, but we did go to see an ancient battle reenactment on horseback, which was pretty entertaining. Most of the entertainment came from what went wrong rather than what went right, but it was still good fun.

And here's a brief video diary from our time in Shenzhen -

Our next Chinese outing was in November, a tiny bit further afield this time, with a two hour train ride to Guangzhou. We had a more chilled-out weekend this time, just strolling around the city and visiting some nice parks and temples. Our first stop was the Canton Tower - the second tallest tower in the world. Guangzhou is a really beautiful city, so it was nice to look over it from 1,500 feet up.

We arrived there in the late afternoon, so just in time to check out the views by daylight, and after that enjoyed a nice stroll along the riverside, to see everything all lit up at night.

The next morning, we headed to Shamian Island, which was probably the highlight of the trip for me. It was nothing like we had seen before on this side of the world. It was just so... European! No surprise then that the island was a 19th century trading hub for European merchants in China. Even though the surroundings were so familiar to us, it felt so out of place! Nice, quiet cobbled streets, pillars, statues, churches - we really could have been anywhere from Madrid to Moscow!

Well, except for all the Asians...

Actually, speaking of which, there weren't just regular Asians roaming the streets of Shamian Island that day, but endless waves of Asian brides and grooms! I don't know where they all came from! Did they all just happen to get married at the same time? Did they just come here to get their pictures taken? Who knows! I'm not complaining though, it all added to the classic atmosphere of the place.

After lunch, we spent the rest of the evening strolling around the city, visiting the Sun Yat Sen Memorial, Guangxiao Temple and Liurong Temple (aka The Temple of Six Banyan Trees). They were all stunningly beautiful and really well maintained and preserved, but my favourite was probably Liurong Temple. It was kinda hard to find, but definitely worth the effort. I just love the look of the old style Chinese tiered pagodas.

Guangxiao Temple had a great ambiance to it as well, and there were even monks chanting away inside as we walked along. Here's a video if you're interested:

We forgot to make a proper video diary for our stay in Guangzhou, and we did intend to. We even have an introductory video from the train station before we left HK!

So that's all there is. We're completely up to date now, and just in time as we fly out to the Philippines tomorrow night! Thanks for reading everyone and we'll see you all in the new year! :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Summer 2011 - 7th Stop: Miri

And so, we face the final curtain. Our summer adventure has come to an end, but we'll always look back on this trip with many fond memories. We've walked along volcanic craters and lush rice terraces, seen ancient temples and endangered animals, stood high above tropical rainforests and swam down below turquoise seas, and gone from bright, white beaches to deep, dark caves. Four weeks, three countries, two happy campers and one amazing holiday!

We had a pretty action-packed month away, so we would be forgiven for taking it easy in our final city, but Miri was actually one of our more adventurous destinations. We had three full days here before we flew back to HK, giving us plenty of time to see the city and its surroundings.

Actually, one thing about Malaysia, before I start, they have flags everywhere! No matter where you go in the country, you'll see hundreds of them - along the roadside, hanging from shops, houses, cars, in the cities, in the countryside, just all over the place! And not just national flags, provincial ones too. Malaysian Borneo is split between the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak. If you ever find yourself here and are not sure which side you're on, just look around, you'll be sure to see a flag.

Our first day here was just a nice, relaxing one really, so nothing much of note to report. We arrived in from Mulu on the morning of the 28th, and spent the rest of the afternoon/evening wandering around the city, having a laugh, and doing a bit of shopping too! We also looked up some info for our trip the next day to Lambir Hills National Park.

We arrived there early the next morning, in fact, we were the first ones there! We even had to open the gate! We thought it might be quite busy as it was high-season, so we made a special effort to beat the crowds, but the crowds never came! (They probably heard about the imminent beating they were going to get...) So, we had the whole forest to ourselves! It was lovely!

After about half an hour of walking, we came upon a beautiful waterfall, backed by a leafy, forest canopy. It was like we had stumbled across some undiscovered, jungle oasis.

Well, apart from the warning signs...

After a nice, refreshing dip, we continued on our way, up to the peak of Bukit Pantu.

Compared to some of the other national parks we've been to here in Borneo, Lambir Hills didn't match up in terms of wildlife, no orangutans or bats or lizards to speak of. One thing it did have though was ants. Millions upon millions of them! In a good way though! They weren't crawling all over us or anything, they were just going along on their merry way (or rather, their Miri way... hohoho!). I'm always fascinated by ants. They're always so organised! (How do they all know what to do?!) So, it was incredible to see so many here. Have a look!

Not only were there millions (possibly even billions) of these tiny ants, but there were also a few giant ones scurrying about the place. Thankfully, we never saw more than two or three of them at a time.

I'm pretty sure if these guys had an army of the same scale, they could easily take over the world...

Eventually, we made it up to the peak of Bukit Pintu, and lazed about up there for a while, taking in the foresty views all around. As you can see, it was a pretty hot day, so after our dip in the waterfall we just wandered about in our swimming togs. Sure why not?! The place wasn't exactly swarming with people. And even if it was, they'd be lucky to see a couple of hot bods like these!

After scaling the peaks, and making it back down to ground level, we headed back to the bus stop. We waited there for a good twenty or thirty minutes, with no sign of anything, but then two guys in a car pulled up offering us a lift to Miri. I guess looking back on it now, it seems a bit dodgy... but we said 'sure! why not?!', and jumped in. (In our defence though, our hostel owner had told us that drivers travelling to Miri often pick up passengers to make a bit of extra money in tips. In fact, the guy in the passenger seat turned out to be just some stranger too.)

The one thing spurring us on that morning, as we climbed up and down Lambir Hills, was the thought of Pizza Hut for dinner! There was one right by our hostel, and we had been talking about going there all day. We asked our mystery taxi driver to drop us off nearby, but when we got to the door, we were told the electricity was gone! What are the odds?! The mixture of hunger and disappointment was excruciating... We did end up going there the next evening though, after another day trip. This time to the Niah Caves.

Niah Caves are one of the most famous tourist destinations here in Miri, but considering that we had just seen a lifetime's worth of caves in Mulu a few days beforehand, we weren't really too sure. In the end, we decided to go anyway, and we're glad we did. We had a lovely day out. We arranged through our hostel for a driver to take us there, and he couldn't have been nicer. He even made us a packed lunch!

There was another nice jungle walk leading up, and the caves themselves were definitely worth seeing. It was a very different experience to that of Mulu, where we were guided around the artificially lit caves in big groups. Here, it was just you alone in the deep, deep darkness, armed with nothing more than a flashlight.

I'm sorry, but isn't that a great photo?! I don't want to sound immodest, bigging up my own work, but isn't it though?!

We journeyed our way through the long and winding cave passages, our torch not even strong enough to see the roof above us. It was exciting though! As you moved into the heart of the caves, without the torchlight there was nothing. Absolute darkness. All in all, the caves were very impressive. Less impressive though were the "cave paintings" we saw at the end of the trail. I use quotation marks as they were little more than smudges on the wall. You wouldn't even notice them if it wasn't for the signs. We were expecting little sketches of men with spears, chasing a yak or something, but this was just rubbish! Still, it didn't take away from the day.

And here's our final video diary to wrap things up!

The next day we flew back to HK, which is where we are now! So, that's that, the end of our summer holidays, written and posted a week before we head away for Christmas in the Philippines! You can probably look forward to reading about that next Easter!

Until then...