Monday, June 29, 2009

Greetings from the Far East

Dearest Blog Readers,

For those of you who are unaware of our wondrous fortune, we wish to inform you that our recent sojourn in Xi'an was simply delightful due to the fact that we were the recipients of gratis accommodation at the Hyatt Regency, Xi'an.

Sincere thanks go to our darling friends, Lisa and Marco, for so graciously sharing with us their quaint little top-floor, three bedroom residence in the Hyatt. Hyatt, Hyatt, Hyatt, Hyatt, Hyatt.

After the ghastly locomotive journey to Xi'an, we felt it absolutely necessary to recuperate in a style to which we are accustomed. Hyatt, Hyatt, Hyatt, Hyatt.

First and foremost, it was imperative we received a lengthy massage (180 minutes to be precise), however, during this relaxation time, the most horrendous thing occurred!! A young 'local chap' being massaged in an adjoining parlour overheard us speaking English (the Queens English, of course) which must have intrigued him so, as he took it upon himself to constantly open the sliding French doors betwixt our parlours and commence staring at us in a most unsettling way. Now, we are no strangers to travelling the Orient, and as a consequence, have become somewhat accustomed to such stares. However, a massage parlour is no place to be staring at a lady, particularly in such a relentless way!

Once we recovered from the massage parlour ordeal, we were free to explore the wonders of Xi'an. Our days were spent leisurely cycling around the grand city walls and dining with our friends and their charming colleagues.

Despite residing in the Hyatt, we were compelled to experience life in Xi'an as the town folk to. Who would have thought two such refined ladies would be found dining street-side eating barbequed food from skewers! And furthermore, we enjoyed it thoroughly!

As one must do when one is in Xi'an, we paid a visit to the world renown 8th wonder of the world, The Terracotta Warriors. What a delight it was! We were utterly amazed at the historic ambiance we encountered there and we were not at all surprised to find that the likes of Bill Clinton had also visited this site in years gone by. Might we add, the introductory film detailing the history of the Warriors in a dramatic re-enactment, is a must-see. Such superb 360 degree cinematography simply cannot be surpassed! Sadly, as we had previously arranged an expedition to a little place called Tibet, our vacance in Xi'an drew to a close.

One knows when one travels, that one is occasionally required to forego some of life's basic necessities, such as maids, porters and doormen and the daily replacement of one's 100 count Egyptian cotton sheets (seriously, we're not kidding). However, we can only hope that for the remainder of our pan-Asian voyage, we continue to receive this basic standard of living to which we have become accustomed. Which raises one final matter- Does anyone know the address of the Hyatt Regency in Lhasa, Tibet? If so, please phone ahead and notify them of our imminent arrival on Friday evening.

Warmest Regards,

Miss. A. Palfreyman and Miss. C. Pace

(Hyatt Regency, Diamond Members)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hell on Tracks

So... we survived the night train from Beijing to Xi'an... barely. Wow, what an experience that was!

We got the cheapest seats ... hard seats they call them. This involved kind of booths of 6 people - 3 on each side facing each other. We were lucky enough to be seated opposite a charming couple... we dubbed the husband BBB King (birthmark, burps and balls King) and his lovely wife, who we like to call Bertha, who constantly felt the need to jam a finger up her nose and roll her snot in her fingers... that's when she wasn't spitting sunflower seed shells all over our feet. By the way, when we say booth, please don't think we're talking about anything that would provide some kind of privacy or sound-proofing... we just mean rows of seats, 3 on each side of the train, facing each other. This seating arrangement is what allowed us to get to know BBB King so intimately - had we been facing the other way, we wouldn't have been able to stare at the birth mark on his face or see the delightful camel-toe his synthetic, checked, high-waisted pants were giving him... although facing the other direction wouldn't have prevented us from hearing him burp up a storm at 10 minute intervals, so maybe it wouldn't have been all bad.

We were the only foreigners on the train and as a consequence we got stared at A LOT. The guy sitting next to Bertha and BBB King spent at least 9 of the 10 hour train ride staring at us... we call him Starey McStare. He wasn't creepy, just curious, we think.

We had fun stepping over people sleeping in the aisles while walking to and from the shit-covered hole in the ground they call a toilet, and we particularly liked it when we couldn't wash our hands after touching the piss-covered toilet door handle because there was a man sleeping in the sink. Fact. (Thank god for sanitizer gel). We also enjoyed it when the people in the booth next to us set up their cell phones to play crackly Chinese music at full volume until about 4am. Who cares though really, it's not like we had a cusion under our asses or a head rest of any sorts that would allow for some kind of comfort that may permit sleep.

In addition to all these highlights, we also had the luxury of being able to oogle at the fat elderly gent in the booth next to us who spent 50% of the train ride shirtless... lucky us. Another fun bit was the stinky food cart that smashed into our knees every hour or so... really, it was 10 hours of joy. Tell you what, next time we book a train, we're not skimping on the $20 extra it costs for a cheap sleeper.

Experience had, lesson learnt.

Never again.

Friday, June 19, 2009

One World, One Dream

It was after Shanghai that we were due to part ways with our travel companions - us to Beijing and them to Hong Kong...but the three of them enjoyed our wonderful company so much that they decided to join us in Beijing!! So, Shanghai'd out the five of us jumped on a night train to the Nation's capital. Soft seats made the travel time pass by relatively quickly, however, the 12 hour journey did drag on a little.

For five kind of lazy people, who like to sleep in we really surprised ourselves with how much sightseeing and recreation we managed to fit into just under one week in Beijing.
First things first - Beijing is awesome...Shanghai was fun, but Beijing took fun to a whole new level - and we actually felt like we were in China! There is so much to see and do in Beijing, you'd need a life-time to do it all. We can't be bothered writing detailed descriptions of everything we did, and we're sure you can't be bothered reading them, so here, in dot-point form, are some highlights;
  • Summer Palace (stunning - must see!)
  • Forbidden City (big and forbidden)
  • Exploring some of Beijing's Hutongs (old, narrow alleys)
  • Lazy Sunday on a cozy Hutong rooftop bar ($10 for all you can drink in 3 hours!)
  • Food glorious food (Peking duck and hot pot!!)
  • Olympic Park (an eerie ghost town)
  • Factory 798 (lots of cool artist spaces with graffiti and sculptures)

No visit to Beijing would be complete without a trip to the Great Wall... so obviously we went there. We opted to take the road less travelled and walked the 10km largely un-restored Jinshaling to Simatai section. It was pretty tough walk that sometimes required us to climb steep stairs on all fours - but the views were amazing and it was definitely worth the hard work.

While the boys were left to climb the wall without assistance, we were 'fortunate' enough to be 'adopted' by two local farmers who offered us their leathery old hands to hold up and down every step and ramp. We knew this help wouldn't come for free but they were so cute and old and told us lots of interesting things about the we accepted their help thinking they'd accompany us to the end... but alas, half-way through the walk, after a particularly trying set of stairs, our old friends pounced on us with books and t-shirts insisting we buy. Five dollars later, we parted ways. After scaling the wall we felt we could do anything, so at the end of the walk, we took a super scary, yet fun, zip-line across a river!! A great way to end our Great Wall experience.

Another highlight was the "crazy food night market" (it's actual name escapes us now). Here you could sample an array of, erm, interesting and different foods such as; sheep penis, snake, scorpion, silk worn larvae, snake skin...and there were just the things we tried! There was also sea horse, star fish, centipedes, beetles of every kind and the guts and gizzards of just about every farm animal you can think of. Fair to say, no one's stomach felt 100% at the end of the night, but we had a great time and a lot of laughs (particularly at the man who yelled out "you try penis! you eat penis!").

You may (or may not) know that June 4th marked the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy student protest at Tinanmen Square. Given that we were in Beijing for this important anniversary, we were curious to check out the square on the day. Having been there a few days earlier, the beefed up security was noticeable - even if they did try and hide this by using plain clothed police (p.s - China, drop the matching badges, hats and sunnies if you want them to blend in). There were more soldiers and police (uniformed and plain clothes) than regular people - but this was the only indication of the anniversary that was evident. It would've been good to see the 1989 events remembered and acknowledged in some way, but the ominous presence of 'the law' made it a little scary for anyone to do anything about it.

The end of our stay in Beijing also marked the end of our travel time with the boys from the boat...sadly, we said our goodbyes and they headed south while we made our way south west on another night train to Xi' stay in the Hyatt. Fact!

Shanghais and Lows

Shanghai 1st impressions: Smoggy, big buildings, crowded, baaaad food.
Shanghai lasting impressions: Smoggy, big buildings, crowded, decent food.
As you can see our 1st and lasting impressions of Shanghai remain largely the same, but for one thing - the food. This may have something to do with our first meal in China, that left a bad taste in our mouths - literally.
A combination of wanting to sample the local cuisine and our complete inability to speak, read or understand a word of Chinese, led us to a small soup/dumpling restaurant near our hostel. The fact that we saw a man selling headless snakes in the shop next door should have, perhaps, made us rethink eating in this part of town... but it didn't and oh how we wish it did. From what we can gather, the restaurant had 3 dishes- soup, dumplings and some kind of animal leg. We opted for soup and dumplings, but what we were served can only be described as bit of some unidentified beast floating in water. We're fairly sure we recognised the chewy texture of liver and kidney, but the rest of the 'meat' remains a mystery. Not wanting to be defeated by food on our first day in China, we attempted to eat it... we ended up eating ice-cream for lunch instead.
Food:1. Amy and Claire: 0
Later that night over a few drinks, the guys we met on the boat (Luke, Rich and Niall) informed us that we would be having a 'tour-off' of Shanghai over the following days. This 'tour-off' would be Boys Vs Girls and involved each 'team' creating a sightseeing tour for the day and leading the others around... basically the guys couldn't be bothered trying to figure out what to do, so elected us girls to go first.
The following morning, 'Amy and Claire's Shanghai Sightseeing Tour' kicked off... however, a substantial lack of planning on our part, due to short notice and hangovers, left the tour as somewhat of a disaster that saw us get lost several times and unable to find the vast majority of sights (such as the propaganda poster museum) on our hastily put together tour list (also known as the Lonely Planet Shanghai Walking Tour). In our defence, there were many factors at play that were out of our control - for example, The Bund, one of Shanghai's biggest tourist draw cards, was completely under construction and there is basically nothing else of interest to see in Shanghai. Furthermore, we were wrongly led to believe that 'The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel' would actually be good and involve a few sights... but given that it is an underwater tunnel, it's not really a surprise that 'sights' weren't involved! Regardless, we felt cheated out of out $8 when instead of a tunnel of sightseeing, we got flashing lights and crackly audio that said something about passing through 'hot magma'... perhaps you might care to look at this link for a better idea...

An entry ticket for The Bund... possibly the most exciting part of the whole experience.

Over the next few days the competition continued and we saw all the sights of Shanghai (that we could find) including a backstreet full of pet stores complete with dead fish and rats lying on the road for cars and unsuspecting pedestrians to squash. Let's just say the competition was a draw (sorry boys, it's our blog and there ain't nothing you can say about it!).

While Shanghai isn't exactly a tourist paradise, it does have a unique 'cultural offering' of it's own... cheap drink nights!! Needless to say, we spent a fair amount of our time there exploring this 'cultural' aspect. We seriously could not believe our luck when we stumbled across bar after bar serving FREE (or near free) drinks every night of the week. We also couldn't believe our luck when in one such bar, we bumped into our friend, Alex, who we knew from Korea who is now working in Shanghai! Crazy small world!

So to Shanghai we say this; Although you were not the best place we have been to, you were fun in your own way. Thank you for the hangovers and thank you, sincerely, for your amazing sightseeing tunnel that robbed us of 15 minutes and $8 that could have been spent on other things... such as fighting locusts.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I'm On A Boat!!

Have you ever been the victim of random temperature checks??
We have (6 times in 2 days in fact).
Have you ever been forced to buy and wear a face mask??
We have.
Have you ever spent 48 hours on a boat??
We have... and we live to tell the tale!!
Swine flu... apparently it's a pretty big deal... and apparently when travelling from Osaka, the Swine Flu Capital of Japan, extreme measures are taken to ensure that you don't have or spread the flu to your country of destination.

Prior to being granted permission to board our ferry from Osaka to Shanghai, we had to pass a test... it's not one you can study for, but it is, in this age of Swine flu, the greatest test of all... The Temperature Test. Now, in general, tests of any kind make us a little nervous, but after seeing the guy in front of us denied permission to board the boat, we began to worry a little that we could be forced into quarantine in Japan and miss our ferry to China. That would be just our luck. We waited in anticipation for our turn to take 'The Test', which involved a small Chinese man holding a sensor of sorts about 2cm from our foreheads to check our temperatures. The first 5 attempts at checking Amy's temp were complete failures... apparently a body temperature reading of 3 degrees Celsius isn't normal... good to know our travel fate was dependant on such an accurate and reliable scientific instrument. After some very technical adjustments were made to the sensor (that is, the clerk bashed it against his palm a few times), our temperatures were read and we were finally allowed to board the boat. Phew.

Upon boarding, we were shown to our 16 bed dorm room (ladies only, thank you)... by dorm we mean a 5m X 5m cupboard with windows and tatami mats on the floor... and by bed we mean a very thin mat on the floor with a brick for a pillow. As the last people to get into the room, we were happy to see that it was only half full.. what we weren't happy to see was that our room mates for the next 2 days were 4 Japanese women with a brood of little kids under the age of 5. Every kid on that boat was in our room. Joy! Don't get us wrong, we love kids, but being woken up by a 4 year old smiling at you while jumping from your shins to your stomach (fact) tends to make their charm wear a little thin. Really, in all fairness, they were really cute kids and when they weren't building forts around our beds with the spare pillows and mattresses, or spilling their drinks all over the floor (that was also our bed), they provided us with a lot of entertainment and hugs on our long journey.

In addition to making BFF's with 4 year olds, we were also lucky enough to meet a few other travellers who, like us, had opted fro this cheap mode of transport. As you can imagine, there's not too much to do on a boat for 2 days, so we bonded with our new travel companions with the help of beer vending machine and karaoke bar. We don't know why, but there's something about being stuck in a confined space for a long period of time with the threat of swine flu hanging over your heads that makes you feel like you've known someone for years... so by the time we got to China, these guys were our best friends!

Upon arriving in Shanghai we were greeted by the sight of 10 policemen waiting for our boat to dock. They forced everyone to wait on the boat for an hour while they searched bags and took groups of Japanese men aside for questioning. We're still not entirely sure what was going on, but the boat rumour-mill has it that they were searching for counterfeit money.

After the police allowed us to leave the boat and we passed yet another temperature test, we headed to immigration where we all had to undergo thermal scans before being allowed to continue through customs... well most of us were allowed to continue to customs. Our friend Niall, had worked himself up into such a nervous state that he failed the thermo-scan and was promptly led into a closed room by a man in a biohazard suit. We may never know what really happened in this room, but after about an hour, a shaken Niall was released... he asked us never to speak of this incident again (or something kind of like that).

Finally free from the confines of the boat, our team of 2, now 5 strong, discarded our face masks and stepped out onto Chinese soil.

The end.