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!