Saturday, December 8, 2012

Summer 2012 - 15th Stop: Hiroshima & Miyajima

Next up, another double whammy - Hiroshima and Miyajima. These two were always on our list of places to see in Japan, but when we realised that we would be in the country for the anniversary of the atomic bomb, we pretty much scheduled our whole Japanese itinerary around Hiroshima. It's been 67 years since the place was destroyed, but you'd never know it. The only evidence of that fateful day is the purposefully untouched A-Bomb Dome, which was one of the few buildings to remain somewhat intact after the blast. Nowadays it's a booming (poor choice of words) city, akin to any other in the western world, with a thriving tourist industry. Although the question is, would we and all these other tourists have bothered to come here if the city had never been destroyed at all?

We first arrived in Hiroshima late on the night of August 2nd, although it was just the briefest of stays for now (we'd be back for good two days later). When we arrived at the train station, we obviously must have looked lost as a lovely security guard came over and tried to help us as best he could with his zero English. He did manage to find us a map though and pointed us in the right direction. The Japanese really are the best! The fire alarm went off too in the middle of the night, but we just stayed in bed. Thankfully the Japanese seem to have the same attitude towards fire alarms as the Irish - just ignore it and it'll eventually stop ringing...

The next morning we were up and off again to the island of Miyajima, home to one of Japan's "Three scenic views". Now, we didn't get a chance to check out the other two on our travels, but this one was pretty spectacular.

The Itsukushima Shrine was our first stop of the day - a Shinto shrine built on a pier-like structure above the water line. The tide was well out however when we arrived, so we were able to walk around the beach and take a few snaps of the surrounding area. The most striking and recognisable part of the shrine was of course the large torii gate located on the beach front. It's just one of those places that you could stand and look at for hours. We didn't... but we definitely could have! We did come back here again though for sunset.

Afterwards, we took a long hike up to Mt. Misen, the island's highest point, stopping off along the way at Daisho-in Temple. Although it was a steep climb to the top, especially under the hot summer sun, it was a lovely walk, especially with all of the surrounding greenery (and yellow and reddery...) to observe.

It was of course worth the trek for the view from above. And we reached the top in perfect time too, as there was a small shop up there just about to close (I guess mentioning there was a shop at the peak makes our mountain climb sound less heroic...). So after a couple of cokes and a nice scenic rest, the sun was about ready to pack it in for the day and so we headed back down to the torii gate for a magical sunset.

Our hostel was on the mainland, so we had to get a ferry back afterwards, but we returned again the next morning for another half-day. The tide was in this time around so we got to see the shrine again, this time as it seemingly floated on top of the water.

We were planning on getting something to eat here too but the restaurants seemed a bit dear...

Ay ay? Dear! Get it?! You know, like the animal!

There were a lot of deer on the island actually, not just this guy. They're very tame though, they just wander around, looking for food, having a laugh, classic deer hijinks.

We also saw something pretty special, and I'm not sure how to give it a truly fitting introduction, so I'll just come out and say it - The World's Biggest Wooden Spoon! How jealous are you right now?!

Miyajima must have the most well-behaved kids in Japan for fear of being on the end of the world's largest spanking!

After seeing that, everything else would just have been a disappointment so we got a ferry back to the mainland, collected our things and returned to Hiroshima. Miyajima was amazing though, with so much to see and do for such a little island. It's certainly worth the detour.

So, back in Hiroshima, and the next morning we booked two tickets for another slice of Japanese culture, BASEBALL-ARU!!! They're mad for it! It's by far the most popular sport over here and luckily enough, there was a game on that night. So, off we went to the packed out Mazda Stadium to see our boys, the Hiroshima Carp, take on the Hanshin Tigers - a real grudge match, I'm sure you'll agree.

We really enjoyed ourselves, for the atmosphere more than anything, not so much the baseball (it's just not an interesting sport). The fans were amazing, I've never seen such enthusiasm. And I don't mean the raw emotion of cheering your team on, it was pure controlled excitement. Everyone clapped their hands, waved their batons and song their songs together - it felt more like a kindergarten class than a sports stadium. We loved it though! The Japanese are so nice and endearing. At one stage too, it started to rain, so the woman next to us gave Aisling a towel to wrap around her head. And not just until it stopped pouring, but to keep! The Japanese like...

After a grueling three hours (that's just too long for any sport), the mighty Carp recorded an impressive 7-0 victory. Now I'm no expert on baseball, but I think our quarterback managed to sink a couple of three-pointers in the second down, allowing us to slam dunk our way into the endzone... USA USA USA!!!

The food in the stadium was great as well!

I'll have to look up their recipe. The special sauce was delicious!

The next day, our last in Hiroshima was one of the most memorable of the trip. It was of course the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb, so our day revolved around that. We first visited the A-bomb dome and then the Peace Memorial Museum, which was especially moving. We're usually not big museum people at all, but this one is definitely worth a visit, especially for the day that was in it.

There were also numerous anti-nuclear protests around the city during our stay, all very respectful of course, this is Japan after all. Hiroshima seems to have become the capital of this movement, and I suppose it has become even more relevant recently after the earthquake of last year which caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

We also paid a visit to Hiroshima Castle, which was also destroyed in the blast but now restored.

The highlight of our time here though was definitely the lantern ceremony of that evening. We were lucky to get a good spot along the riverside as crowds of people gathered round to watch thousands upon thousands of paper lanterns being released downstream. The whole scene was just so perfect with this river of flickering lights set against the backdrop of the ghost-like A-bomb Dome.

And I think that's a good way to end this blog entry. We also have another video diary which you can see here:

The next morning, we got a train back across the country to Kyoto, so we'll see you there next time!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Summer 2012 - 14th Stop: Yokohama & Fuji Go-ko

Next on the list, Yokohama & Fuji Five Lakes - two entirely different places, but seeing as we only spent a night in each, I'll just snuggle them up together for the purpose of this entry. It was tough leaving Tokyo behind, but these two didn't disappoint. They picked up the baton, carried the torch and kept the flag flying for Japan! (Sorry for the mixed metaphors, the Olympics were on at the time...).

First up was the very short trip down the road to Yokohama, so short in fact that it's hard to tell where Tokyo ends and Yokohama begins. Japan's first and second cities just seem to merge together like a big pair of urban Siamese twins. Tokyo may have had more glitz and glamour but Yokohama had its own charms too.

We left Tokyo early on the morning of July 31st. We really only had 24 hours here so we wanted to make the most of it time-wise. So, after dumping our stuff at the hostel, we headed out for the day, walking through Chinatown and along the docks of Yamashita Park. There also seemed to be some sort of Hawaiian holiday village, and now that I think of it, there were Hawaiian things all over Japan! Hawaiin music, Hawaiian restaurants, Hawaiian shrits - It's the most Hawaii-influenced place I've ever seen! (I've never been to actual Hawaii...).

We then went up to the modern Minato Mirai district, and even went back there again later on that evening to see the place at night.

We also treated ourselves to Subway for dinner, our first Japanese Subway experience, and quite different from what we're used to. I'd class us as Subway connoisseurs at this stage, seeing as we go there about twice a week in HK, so here's my analysis:

- Nice bread, very fresh and soft,
- Potato wedges with the meal deal instead of cookies or crisps - a bold move, but it works.
- A different selection of salads, but as long as there was lettuce and tomato, I didn't mind.
- Some downsides though, the price obviously, but that's just Japan.
- You have to pay extra for cheese too. What's that about?!
- Also, their subs of the day leave a lot to be desired, Potato & Cheese, Avocado & Veggie, are ya kidding me?!

But all things considered, a very respectable performance and just what we needed.

One other thing worth mentioning, about Japan in general - vending machines, they're everywhere! In buildings, in parks, on the side of the road, all over the place! They're really handy though, and we even saw some digital ones in Yokohama, very snazzy altogether!

The next morning, after breakfast in Yokohama, we got the train back to Shinjuku, and then on to Kawaguchi-ko for our second chance at Mt. Fuji. We arrived in style too, aboard our awesome Thomas the Tank Engine themed train!

We had about a day and a half here overall, and after the disappointment of Hakone, we were determined not to leave without getting a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, that was completely out of our hands and as we rolled into Kawaguchi-ko, we were greeted by nothing but clouds! Well, there wasn't much we could do to change the weather so we just had to make the most of our time here regardless.

As the name, Fuji Go-ko (or Fuji Five Lakes) suggests, there are five lakes here. Shocker, I know! They're much too big to see in a day, so we just went for a walk a quarter of the way around Lake Kawaguchi, before turning around again. We then strolled up to the nearby town of Fuji-Yoshida as the evening came to a close, to visit the Sengen Shrine, but we couldn't find it... But but but! As we wandered around aimlessly, something started to emerge from the clouds, and just in time too!

We finally got an exclusive peek at that elusive peak! As it was the middle of summer, it wasn't wearing its famous, snowy cap, but we didn't mind, we achieved our goal!

That evening we just retired to the hostel and watched some of the Olympics in the common room. They had a bunch of traditional Japanese clothes that you could try on, but we felt a bit self-conscious dressing up with people around. So, we waited for everyone to go to bed, rushed over, threw on a few kimonos and took some snaps!

We were on edge the whole time! Whenever we heard footsteps coming towards the room, we threw off our kimonos and tried to act all nonchalant. In the end, we managed to get a few pics off before anyone came in.

The next morning, we had a few more hours in town before we had to leave Mt. Fuji for good. It was a beautiful day, but again, Fuji was hiding behind the only cloud in the sky! It didn't matter though, we saw it once and that was enough for us! We took another walk around town and then got a cable car up to Mt. Kachi Kachi. There were some lovely views over Lake Kawaguchi and, the now obscured, Mt. Fuji. The walk back down wasn't too bad either. Summer may have meant that there were no snowy peaks to be seen, but it also meant the hydrangeas were in bloom.

We made a video diary up there too!

When we reached the bottom, we had given ourselves plenty of time to get back to the hostel and have something to eat before we had to catch our bus. But at that moment, the clouds began to clear once more and we just couldn't resist running back down to Lake Kawaguchi to get one last glimpse of Fuji. Totally worth it!

It did mean though that we had to hightail it back to the hostel, grab our bags, pick up something quick in 7-11 and jump on the bus before it left without us! Thus ending a thoroughly enjoyable time in Fuji Go-ko. The next few hours consisted of getting a bus to Gotemba, a train to Numazu, and then Mishima, before finally making the long haul cross-country to our next stop, Hiroshima!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Summer 2012 - 13th Stop: Tokyo

Ok, I know I said that capital cities aren't worth going to, and the real beauty of a country lies in the smaller towns, but I'll hold my hands up this time and make a huge exception for Tokyo. It's probably the best city in the world. Now I know that may just sound like hyperbole, as last time I described Manila as the worst city in the world, but both representations are true! We really went from the bottom to the top in the space of a day! Japan was just great all over though. Not only its modern, man-made beauty, but its natural and historical sights too. It had everything! And Tokyo was at the heart of it all. We loved our stay in Vietnam and Laos, but when we landed in Japan, it was a bit like stepping out of a time machine! No offence to those places, I know that sounded kinda harsh, but it was a refreshing change of scenery to be in arguably the most advanced country on the planet.

We arrived in Osaka on July 26th, two days later than we had planned, and as we were flying in late, we just spent the night there before getting the train to Tokyo the next morning. We had originally reserved a couple of spots in one of Japan's fascinating, little capsule hotels for that night, but because of our unplanned detour, we unfortunately had to cancel the booking. I was really looking forward to it too!

I know we should be blaming the typhoon for missing out on these two days in Japan, but it just feels natural to take it out on Manila! Damn you, Manila!!

When we landed in Osaka, we also activated our three-week Japan Rail Passes. Similar to European interrail passes, they allow you to travel on any train on the designated JR lines, mainly intercity trains but also a few different subway lines in some of the major cities. At a cost of 57,700 Yen (around €570), they may seem a bit pricey at first glance, but if we had just bought each train ticket individually, we would've easily spent two or three times that amount, so they're definitely worth the money. You can only get these passes outside of Japan though, so if you are planning a trip here, make sure to organise this a few weeks beforehand.

So, the next morning we hopped on a train to Tokyo to start our 4-day stint here. We were staying in a lovely part of the city called Nakano, although having said that, everywhere we went in the city was great! (Prepare yourselves, this blog entry is going to be full of love!) We never came across any dodgy areas or anywhere that we didn't feel completely at ease. I'm sure these places do exist, but we certainly didn't experience any. We actually found our way around Tokyo quite easily too, navigating the streets and subway lines pretty effortlessly, which is quite impressive considering, well, this:

On our first day in town, we walked around Ueno Park and the National Museum (not great), saw the bright lights of Akihabara's electronic district, and also went to Asakusa, to see Tokyo's oldest temple, Senso-ji, by day...

And by night!

Asakusa as a whole is a very nice district actually. There's a few other smaller temples and shrines nearby Senso-ji, as well as a beautiful riverside area containing the Tokyo Sky Tree, the Asahi brewery building (which looks like a giant beer), and a big statue of... something. Possibly a massive, golden turd...

The next morning, after breakfast in the 7-11 across the road (we really had to eat on a budget here. Japan is expensive out!), we went off on a day-trip to the historic town of Kamakura, less than an hour by train from Tokyo. It's quite a small place, considering it's a former Japanese capital, and we were able to see everything we wanted on foot.

It's a beautiful town and well worth spending a few hours, with an endless supply of ancient temples and shrines to keep you busy, as well as nice sea views and leafy, forest paths too. You'll never get to see everything here, but I think we covered the highlights, including Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, Kencho-ji, the Zeniarai-Benten Shrine, Hase-dera Temple, before hiking along the Daibutsu Trail and finishing off at the Great Buddha of Kotokuin.

It's not as big as Hong Kong's Tian Tan Buddha though... I'm just sayin'...

That evening we went back to Tokyo and visited Shinjuku, one of the busiest districts in town. It's probably the part of Tokyo most in keeping with the stereotypical view of the city - bright lights, fast paced, neon signs - a real attack on the senses. The kind of place where you'd have an epileptic fit just walking down the street. In a good way though!

The next day, we had a look at the more historic side of the city as we strolled around the Imperial Palace and surrounding gardens. It was quite nice but not a whole lot to see, being honest. Kamakura was a lot more impressive in this respect. We actually spent most of the day on foot, first checking out the famous Ginza street crossing and then heading over to Shinjuku again and the uber-trendy Harajuku.

One of the big things that struck us in Japan as a whole is how safe the country is, and not just that, but how trusting the locals are of this safe environment. For example, while we were in a small park near the Imperial Palace, we saw a man cycling along with his young daughter. They stopped and he left her alone while he went to park the bike. Now, he was probably only gone for a minute or two, but in any other country that's a long time to leave a small child out of sight. And even when he returned, they left their bags by a tree and went for a walk around, not a care in the world. Amazing.

I was obviously too busy taking pictures at the time. If I was paying more attention, I could have picked up a new bag AND a new daughter for myself!

We went on another day-trip the following morning, this time to Hakone, a small lakeside town in the shadows of Mount Fuji, again, a little over an hour from Tokyo. We had a lovely day out here, as we carted ourselves around by train, bus, boat, cable-car and funicular, all in the space of a few hours. Our first stop along the way was Owakudani, a volcanic area where you can try the local delicacy of black eggs, which are just like regular eggs, but cooked in bubbling sulphur pits on the side of the mountain. Mmmm...

We were apprehensive enough about trying sushi, never mind sulphuric eggs! Needless to say, we moved swiftly along.

Next, we got a boat across Lake Ashi, which was quite spectacular in itself, but could've been a lot more so if it wasn't for a stubborn, misplaced cloud that sat snugly on top of Mt. Fuji for the afternoon. We waited and waited, camera at the ready, but alas, not a Fuji (or even a Fugee) in sight.

Disappointing of course, but all hope was not lost, we would get a second bite of the cherry two days later when we travelled to Fuji Go-ko, hopefully this time it would be ready to come out to play. We still had a great time in Hakone though, a really beautiful town. And the thing is, the weather was actually lovely while we there - blue skies overhead all day.

That one little cloud just ruined things for everyone!

We came back to Tokyo that evening for, sadly, our last night in town, returning to the world famous Ginza Crossing to get one last slice of Tokyo city life, before we continued on with our Japanese journey the next morning.

We made a video diary there too! Even if you don't want to hear us waffle on, it's worth it just to have a look around:

And there goes Tokyo! I know we've said it before about various cities we've visited in the past, but we'll definitely be back here again, without a doubt. It's just a wonderful city and in the four days we've spent here, I'm sure we've barely even scratched the surface. On the plus side, we still had another two and a half weeks left to go in Japan, so plenty more fun times to be had!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Summer 2012 - 12th Stop: Manila

"What's that?!" I hear you cry, "Weren't you flying to Japan next?". Yes, indeed. In a break from our scheduled holidaying, we're bringing you a special edition of the blog, live from the worst place in the world - Manila! Thanks to a little pinch of bad luck and a major dollop of typhoon, we had to take a small detour from our intended route, but we'll come to that in a moment...

When we last left you, we had just arrived in Hong Kong and it was good to be back, if even for a day, as we had people to see, things to do, stuff to pack and unpack too. (I didn't mean for that to rhyme, but I'm definitely leaving it in!) We didn't come back to HK mid-holiday for just these reasons of course, it also had the cheapest flights in the south of China, and so we were flying from here to Osaka (via Manila) the following morning.

While we were in Vietnam and Laos, it was meant to be their rainy season, but we luckily seemed to dodge pretty much all of it. I guess Mother Nature was just storing it all up to unleash upon us in one go, as that night, Hong Kong had it's worst storm in 13 years!

And the next morning wasn't much better, though thankfully the trains were still running so we were at least able to make it to the airport. And there was more good news as we arrived, in amongst the cancellations and major delays, our flight to Manila was still going strong, albeit with a minor 50 minute set back. This was fine though as we had 3 hours after we arrived in Manila to make our connecting flight.

Unfortunately, as we made our way through the various stages of the airport, those 50 minutes turned into 3 and a half hours, so by the time we arrived in Manila, we couldn't even make a dramatic, last-ditch run to our gate, the flight was already gone...

We headed straight to the Cebu Pacific desk as they were handling both our flight in from HK, and out to Osaka. And in fairness to them, they couldn't have done more for us.

- "Excuse me, our flight from Hong Kong was delayed and we just missed our connecting flight to Osaka"
- "Don't worry, we'll take full responsibility and will book you on the next flight to Osaka free of charge"
- "Oh great, that's very good of you! What time is the next flight?"
- "Emm... Thursday"

And as my brain was in holiday mode, all I could think was 'Oh God, what day is it today?!'. It turns out it was Tuesday, which meant we had two days to kill in Manila. Funnily enough, we would've been better off if our flight from HK had been cancelled completely, instead of being delayed. At least then we could've spent those two days in comfortable surroundings. In fact, we would've also been better off if the typhoon had slammed our plane into the ground, and spent the two days among the wreckage, rather than spending it in Manila. It would've at least been safer and less chaotic! Seriously though, Manila is an absolute shithole.

And the thing is, despite being stranded here, we were both very positive about things and really embraced the situation, and in a strange way, were kinda looking forward to two days in a surprise location! We just wish now that it had been somewhere else, anywhere else. I always try to put as many pictures as I can into each blog entry, but I'll be making an exception this time around. The place had absolutely nothing to offer. In fact, I'm not even going to recount what we did in our time here, it was just an atrocious place. What did I tell ya about capital cities...

The most exciting thing we did was go to the cinema to see The Dark Knight Rises, and even that wasn't very good!

We just couldn't get out of this town quick enough! On the plus side, these two days made it all the sweeter when we eventually did land in Japan. In fact, things got better as soon we stepped on the plane! Cebu Pacific always have a little competition on board where they call out an object and the first person to hold it up wins a prize, and as we had flown with them a few times before, we were ready for their games, nobody else stood a chance! And that just adds to our experience of Manila - as soon as we leave, we get a bag full of cakes! I'm sure there's a message in there somewhere...

Here's a video diary of our time in there, now let's never speak of this place again.

Anyway, onwards and upwards! We may have been two days late, but we still had three weeks of Japan ahead of us, and a nice sunset to welcome us in.

Land of the rising sun, me balls!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Summer 2012 - 11th Stop: Guilin & Yangshuo

And so into China! Not a new country for us of course, but still, two new pins to stick in the map – Guilin and Yangshuo. They were the only two stops we made in the south of China, and were conveniently less than an hour apart, which is ridiculously close by Chinese standards, it’s a pretty big country! I’ll group them both together in this entry as we only spent a few days in the area, and they’re both quite similar in terms of scenery, just like a couple of Halong Bays, without the water.

Well, with less water...

As I mentioned last time around, we got a night train from Hanoi straight through to Nanning, a fairly pleasant journey all things considered. The only minor inconvenience was waking up at 3am to go through immigration at the Chinese border. But as Vietnamese trains go, it wasn’t too shabby at all, especially considering our previous outings (Vinh to Hanoi – eight hours of hard seats, and HCMC to Hoi An – sharing our bunks with a family of six!). So imagine our delight when we walked into our sleeper cabin this time, to be greeted by, not only a pair of fellow whities but, a lovely pair of Scots – Katie and Andrew. And as it turned out, we both had similar plans and similar accommodation in Guilin, so we paired up with them for the next few days.

When we pulled into Nanning, we sorted tickets for the next leg of our travels (despite a severe lack of English anywhere), grabbed some mediocre food and hopped on a train to Guilin, arriving at our accommodation almost a full 24 hours after we left Hanoi.

We had only planned to spend a day in Guilin, so to maximise our time here, we arranged a driver through the hostel to chauffeur us around town, taking us to the Reed Flute Cave, Solitary Beauty Peak and then to Banyan Lake where we went on a boat tour of the city. We had read in a brochure that you should be looking to pay around 50 quid for this which, between the four of us, wouldn’t have been too bad, but at the hostel they said it would only be 20 RMB, around €2... We thought there must’ve been some misunderstanding, but we went with it, perfectly willing to pay more if asked for it. But no, that was it! Two Euro for our own driver. And that’s €2 total, not each! I usually feel great about getting a bargain, but this was so cheap that I almost felt bad about it... almost.

First off for us was the Reed Flute Cave, which was quite good, just a regular cave really with nice illumination here and there.

The definite highlight for us though was their, shall we say, ambitious attempts at labeling the different rock formations. You get this quite a lot at places like this; the rocks aren't interesting enough by themselves so the organisers try to convince you that they look like different things, usually just simple, ambiguous objects like candles or vegetables, but they really took things to a new level here. I don't know where they got their ideas from, but we couldn't make out any of them!

Yup, that's "a centipede frightened by a magic mirror"...! It really made our experience a lot more interesting though, trying to find the most outrageous name possible! 

Next up was Solitary Beauty Peak, another nice place with a short but steep climb up to the peak itself. But again, the best thing about the park was the signs, and one in particular with their rules and regulations, the so-called "Chinese Citizen Domestic Travel Civilized Behavior Convention".

Some of the highlights being:

- "No pandemonium"
- "Don't chase, hit and feed the animal at random"
- "Don't gain petty advantages"
- "Don't talk billingsgate"
- "Resist superstition. Refuse pornography"

We were thankfully able to control ourselves, while in the park at least...

Later that afternoon, we went on a nice little boat ride around the lakes and rivers of Guilin, a pleasant trip, but more interestingly, there was a fancy boat-elevator thing on the edge of the lake. So basically, you drive up to this contraption which closes off a little area of water around the boat. You're then lowered, water and all, down about 20m to the river below, and off you go!

Well, I thought it was interesting anyway.

After the boat trip, we had a nice walk along the river and then on to our last stop of the day, Brocade Hill. It seemed to be a pretty happening place too with lots of activities and attractions on the way up, like caves, shrines, a 5D cinema (???), but at that stage it was around half 5 and we were eager to make it up to the top for sunset.

The sun didn't actually end up setting for another hour and a half...

We did have plenty to keep us occupied though while we waited for the sun to go down, with streams of locals coming up wanting to take pictures with us! This has happened to us a couple of times on our travels, the odd person now and again, but here they were practically queuing up for us! We were only delighted though, a nice ego boost, even if they only wanted us for the colour of our skin (and the shape of our eyes!).

A boy even fainted up there. It was more than likely from the heat, but we like to think he was a little star-struck…

The sun finally set after 7pm, but it was definitely worth waiting for. We may have only had one day in Guilin but we certainly made the most of it.

That evening we all had a nice dinner in a local place along the main street. Like many of the local restaurants in town, they had big basins and cages outside filled with super fresh (i.e. living) ingredients - from fish and crabs, to chickens and ducks, and even a couple of… well, I have no idea!

Some sort of rodents, maybe…? Hedgehogs? Any guesses? Needless to say, we stayed well clear of anything that looked remotely suspicious.

After dinner, we walked along by Banyan Lake, where we had earlier started our river cruise. It was much more impressive at night though, especially with the Sun and Moon Pagodas all lit up.

And that was Guilin! The next morning we got a bus down the road to the smaller, quieter and more beautiful Yangshuo. As we were staying in different accommodation to the two Scots, we split up, checked in, got bikes and met up with them again a while later for a day of cycling.

We were planning on cycling to the Dragon Bridge that afternoon but after our two attempts to find it were halted by roadworks, we had to go somewhere else. That other place was the Butterfly Spring, which we just happened across. It was quite similar to what we had already seen in Guilin - scenic views, nicely lit caves - although, unfortunately it was severely lacking in the funny sign department.

Afterwards, we cycled back to the town, parked our bikes and took a stroll through the open-air markets, which sold your usual scarves, jewellery, paintings and all of that sort of thing. But there was a very nice ambiance around the place, much different to the big city feel of Guilin. For the remainder of the evening, we just got some food and chilled out in a couple of rooftop bars. And although that only marked the end of our first day in Yangshuo, it was the first and last day for our Scottish comrades, so we had to bid them farewell before cycling back to our accommodation in the dark.

The next morning, we got up, grabbed some brekkie and then tackled the Dragon Bridge once more! This time we took the much less scenic, but much less confusing main road for most of the journey, before veering off into the countryside and finally reaching our target at the third attempt.

And we're glad we gave it another shot, as the surrounding scenery was some of the best we had seen. As I mentioned before, on the surface it was quite similar to Guilin in terms of the vast, undulating limestone peaks, but Yangshuo definitely won hands down for its natural and untainted beauty. This area in particular along the riverside was especially beautiful. Rivers always make things look better anyway, but the quiet trail of bamboo rafts floating downstream certainly added an extra level of tranquility to the scene.

On the way back, we decided to try the scenic route again, with the logic that it should be a lot easier to go to Yangshuo than from it. It was basically just a case of following the river all the way, and the plan was going pretty well, leading us through some tiny villages and beautiful countryside, that is until I got a flat tyre... Being in the middle of nowhere is great when you're free and easy, not so much when you need help.

It was also the second time in a week that I got a flat tire, after the same thing happened to me in Halong Bay!

At that stage, we were probably about 9km from Yangshuo and not entirely sure that we were going in the right direction, so Aisling cycled on ahead in search of help while I just wheeled along slowly behind her. Eventually she came across a local man, and although he had no English, he did have a bamboo raft. He also seemed to understand our problem, so we followed him through the fields, down to the river and climbed aboard. Next stop, Yangshuo!

Well, not quite. He actually just brought us across the river to a little place called Yima Village. We were, I guess, one step closer to home but still had a looong way to go, and my bike was still out of action. On the plus side, we were in a village now, instead of just wandering the countryside, so had a better chance of actually finding some help. And after enquiring at a guesthouse and an English school to no avail, we finally stumbled across a bike repair man in a little stall at the side of the road who promptly (and cheaply) patched me up, and pointed us in the right direction. Phew! We were back on track! We came across the roadworks too that had halted our progress the day before, and spotted a little path that looped around them. It turns out we could have gone through the day before and never knew it!

Oh! I nearly died as well! For realz! As we were coming along the main road back into Yangshuo, I was cycling alongside a trailer full of rubbish. The driver obviously mustn't have seen me as she veered out to the left, knocking me off balance. I instinctively put my foot down and just about managed to keep myself upright. It was a good thing too as, if I had fallen, that was me gone for good under the oncoming traffic. Someone was definitely out to get me that afternoon.

The following day, and our last in Yangshuo, was just as enjoyable although thankfully less threatening. We grabbed some bikes again (different ones this time) and headed off to Moon Hill, which was just the same as all the other peaks around, except for the big circular hole in the middle.

It was a long way up to the top, especially under the hot sun, but again worth it for the views below and to see the Moon Hill itself up close. We even met some people rock climbing at the top, inside the circular cut-out. As tourist attractions in China go though, it was very quiet, so we decided to find a secluded spot and make another video diary:

Well, what we thought was a secluded spot. This is actually one of our favourite ever video diaries, just because of our unexpected guest. She was a hoot! And we actually did buy some postcards from her afterwards!

Serious respect to her too. She must have to walk up and down that hill several times a day while we struggled to do it once! Ah well, there go our dreams of selling postcards on Moon Hill!

And that was the end of our time in Yangshuo! That night we got a sleeper bus to Shenzhen, and when we landed the next morning, we hopped across the border back into Hong Kong. Home sweet home, for just a day, with a flight to Osaka the next morning. Part 1 of our summer holidays done, plenty more to come!