26 March 2017

Swallow Cave

Trying to get to get to a “Traditional Village”

Dragon Bridge

Another attempt at getting to a place out of town. This was made fairly easy by the staff at the hostel. Bus 13 to the Bus Station then a mini bus out to the Cave itself. Just let the driver know where we wanted to get off. This went well. 1 yuan for the town bus, then at the ticket office I tried using my translate program for Swallow Cave. Here we hit a problem. It is not called the same thing in Chinese, it is Bird Nest Hole. We eventually came to the conclusion that we were talking about the same thing, and got tickets. 11 yuan each. And 30km.

The bus out took at least an hour………… It wound through the countryside, parallel to the highway for a lot of it. Past fields of plastic crop covers and incessant building sites. Then we past towns filled with brown and red onions. They must have just been harvested, and there were hundreds of tonnes of them. Frequently we would pass massive amounts of bags of onions. Then we were at the cave. There was no need to tell the driver, as it was the end of the line. After a bit of worry, we were in the right place. This is another AAAA listed place, and the ticket price reflected this.

It is an important site, as it is a massive breading place for the swallow, and every year they migrate here to breed. The nest is used for food and medicine. To make sure that it is sustainable, people are only allowed to harvest the nests once a year on the 8th of August after the birds fly back to Malaysia, and the locals free climb the rocks to get to the nests. The entrance of the cave has also been turned into a Buddhist shrine. It was a bit of a walk from the ticket office to the cave, passing a few offerings of corn to the local red bellied squirrels. Then into the mouth of the cave.

In the past the entrance of the cave must have collapsed leaving a land bridge over the front section, with the river flowing into the cave itself. Here are the statues and shrines for Buddha. Below this is the entrance, as well as a lot of boats. We assume these boats are for guided tours, and as we are stingy travellers, we were just doing the cave ourselves. Crossing the bridge with the swallows circling around above us like a flock of bats we entered the cave. There has been a walkway carved into the wall with fairy lights lighting the way. It was a bit of a pity that the cave was not lit, but we had a torch with us, so could pick out some of the details.

The cave itself is massive. I mean REALY big. It is a river flowing into it, and the cavern is so large that the torch wouldn’t reach the other side. Walking through the first chamber and up and down stairs, seeing all different forms of cave details was interesting. Columns, Pillars, Broccoli, Shawls, Stalactites and Stalagmites and Straws. All the usual details were here.

It is a pity that the cave wasn’t lit though, as there was plenty to see. Further along we came to a bridge to the other side, and another massive section struck from the rock. It is almost painful to see the damage wrought here, but then you think of how many tourists pass through each year, and you can understand that it is for the good of the cave, as it would prevent even more damage. Going up another series of steps we thought we were coming to a lit section of the cave. The assumption here was that the first bit was not lit to prevent the swallows from being drawn into the cave and getting lost when the lights are turned out. This was not the case. We had come to a shop. Just in case you needed refreshments or maybe lunch, there was an entire stall set up with chairs and tables. Cold drinks were in the fridges, and a large section for cooking. Passing this and suddenly a few things were lit up in neon greens and blues. This was more what we expected from an Asian cave. Snapping a few quick photos, we continued into the depths. Now more and more of the cave was being lit up. Thinking that the staff back at the refreshment area had drawn themselves away from their phones long enough to switch on a couple of lights we were quite happy. Then we realised that there was a couple of Chinese people behind us on a tour. Deciding to innocuously hang around this couple so we could get some good photos was a good idea. In theory. The tour guide did not seem to want to be there (it was taking her away from her mobile phone after all), so much so that the one English sign other than “caution” that we found in the cave , which was for a feature called the lovers got a whole 10 second description in Chinese followed by the torch playing over the column then it seemed as if the tour was over and she disappeared faster than a peace of chocolate at a weight watchers convention. So did the lights.

Onto the next section of the cave, and we could see the reason for the boats. A couple of these had passed us on the way in, but apparently it was a one way trip from the back of the cave to the entrance when you had completed your walk. Looking down on this again reinforced how big the cave actually was. We were quite a way in, and very high up. With a bit more walking we encountered the biggest shock of all. There was an entire food hall down here! I mean that the floor had been levelled out, and was surrounded by food stalls. Tables and chairs were everywhere, and there were even games machines all set up in a row. It was no Romanian salt mine, but it was close.

Thinking that this was the end, we were surprised to see lights go on further back. The couple were still being lit up on their way around. This cavern wound around to another natural (?) opening. We couldn’t get up to it,but we could walk around another section that again was filled with great examples of cave details. Millions of years in the making, and you could still get mobile reception and a bowl of noodle soup. Better than that, you could get swallows nest soup. If it was open. Apparently we are here out of tourist season, so only five or six were open.

A quick boat ride back to the entrance and we were done. By this stage the weather had opened up and it started to drizzle. Still we took the scenic route back past a couple of tombs and a closed shrine. Skipping the walk over the top of the cave and made our way back to the bus.

(Repeat journey here in reverse)

The next thing we wanted to do when we got back to Jianshui was to go to one of the traditional villages nearby. Again the hostel helped out. Go to the North Gate and catch one of the private minivans heading to the village. It would pass by the Dragon Bridge,which we could see on the way there or on the way back. 5 Yuan a ticket. Sweet.

Again. You would think that after a week, you would start to get used to a country. Not the case in China. The mini vans were easy enough to find, and even the mini van that we needed. However the price for white tourists had jumped. It was not the 5 yuan as expected but 50. Per person. This level of tourist tax royally pissed us off. A few percent different, ok. Maybe even charge us double. But 100 times? No way. We reported this to the local police (which up to now had been quite helpful and friendly, in the way of people that don’t speak the same language. He went off and talked to the driver. Without coming back to us, he went back to his post (and mobile phone) laughing to himself. When the van was about to leave the driver came back to us and let us know it would now be 20 per person. We used the translator app to tell her to get stuffed. Politely.

The next driver was almost as bad and wanted 30 per person. This let us know that wherever you are there are always scum-bags. Giving up on the village we went back to the hostel to get information on walking to the dragon bridge.

The girl at the hostel was horrified at our treatment from the van drivers, and was very apologetic. We let her know it was not her fault, and got directions to walk to the bridge.

The walk took us west of town, past the gate, and down through a small alleyway. From here we met the old railway line and followed it through the fields. There were a few bridges over the small canal that we were walking beside but nothing that would warrant landmark status. A long time later we came to the Dragon Bridge. Well worth the walk. This old bridge looked as if it had undergone a series of renovations, with a bit of a wobble to one side and missing a tower, but still an impressive structure. It seemed as if the river that it spanned had seen better days,as it was basically a canal, as mentioned earlier. It was allowed to widen to make the bridge look as if it was still needed, but its only purpose now was as a tourist attraction. Walking the rest of the way up to it, past the barriers that prevented cars and bikes from using it (although the bikes just go around that) we walked across the famous bridge. That done, it was time to head back to town.

What do you want me to say?!? It was a beautiful bridge, well made, looked after, still standing and a bloody long walk! But having said that, it was still just a bridge. Yes, I know, Ancient Bridge.

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25 March 2017

Mostly a travel day. I get the feeling there are going to be lots of these in China. We are going to Jianshui. This is an old town on the way to the UNESCO rice paddies. We picked it as we could get there by rail, and was about half way. It is also supposed to be a beautiful old town.

Bus to the railway station (1 hour) then going through into the station. You have to go through the equivalent of airport security to enter the station, but it didn’t take too long. Then the process of getting a ticket. Automated machines? Yes! English? No! Also they were not the machines we wanted. I have no idea where these tickets would get you, but it is not to where we want to go apparently. We did end up finding a human ticket booth and get a couple of tickets (Again, you need passports for nearly everything in China). Then another checkpoint to make sure you haven’t used someone else’s tickets, up some escalators and another security checkpoint then you are into the station proper. The place is massive. A large central corridor with shops off to each side and waiting rooms for each platform behind them, as well as another large open area at the far end. Finding your train is fairly easy, then it is lining up to wait for the gates to open. We were a bit early, so went for a look around the shops. Nothing outstanding, just the usual fair at a station. When the gates did open about half an hour before the train is to depart there is a mad dash (but fairly well organised) to the gate. Another ticket check and we could descend to the platform.

The train itself is a sleeper train with three bunk beds to a side (six to a compartment with no doors) and fold down chairs along the corridor. I think the seat is actually harder than the beds! Serviceable, not too cramped but still very full.

After a lot of tunnels, some mountain scenery and one gigantic construction site (the entire country) we arrived at Jianshui Train station. This is a good twenty minutes by bus from the town. We thought we would get a bus to the bus station, then one to the old city, but there was nothing to indicate to our eyes in advance that we had reached the bus station (a few buses parked in an alleyway to the side that we saw after we went past). However this little bus we were on went to the main east gate. We were planning on staying west of the gate and pushed our luck on the bus. However it went around the old city. Getting off at the North Gate, then walking through the city to where we were staying.

The city (Well, the old part where we would spend most of our time) is quite attractive, with a lot of older style buildings. However these are somewhat detracted by the massive advertising signs hanging from the second story, or the massive open shop fronts on ground level, where they have removed everything to put in big glass windows to sell mobile phones or tablets.

It will be nice to walk around the city without having to drag our bags behind us.

Arriving at Typha International Youth Hostel, we checked into a nice room on the central courtyard (3rd floor, but at least china counts the ground floor as 1). A much better room, nice layout, ensuite without glass walls, and most importantly, fantastic staff.

As we were a bit exhausted from the trip, we thought we would just take it easy and have a quick walk around then dinner. As usual, this was not the case… Well, it was sort of.

Walking around the old town is almost like stepping back in time. No, it isn’t. It is like stepping into a re-purposed film set, where the new buildings are made to look old, and have been converted to high end clothing stores, restaurants, mobile phone shops and every space is used as advertising. It is pretty though.

Wandering around a few different streets we made it to Zhu’s Family Garden, an AAAA listed Chinese Cultural Site. (I know, 3 A’s were not enough for them, so they added an extra one. “Go big or go home” is an expression that sums up a lot of things in China.) After sitting for a bit, and having a surprisingly nice pineapple beer from a can, we headed in. The entry was only 50 yuan a person….

It was worth it. The complex is quite large and is a clan gathering place for an important, rich family. Their downfall was backing the wrong leader in a successful uprising, loosing the property to the government, which then used it for a few different purposes including a military hospital until turning it into a, well, museum of sorts. At least it was not torn down and built on.

It was very peaceful wandering through the different rooms in the complex. The details in the carving and paintings were beautiful to behold. The paintings did vary quite a bit from the professional to “its my grandson so I will keep it” level, but still well worth seeing. On top all of this were the intricate doors and the occasional insight into life back in the day.

Dinner was a massive bowl of noodles that was half the price of Kunming. Food is going to be good in this country (at least in places!) Sitting there slurping away with the West Gate as our backdrop was a perfect end to a long day. This was to the amusement of every passing local. We are not sure if it was us eating at a street side store, or just Andrews hair. People were less than subtle in taking photos of us, to the extent that we thought we were the tourist attraction. A few people even came up to ask if they could take a photo of us with them!

Back to a hard bed…. Very. Hard. Bed….Mattress, who needs a mattress?

24 March 2017

Kunming

In pain. We changed hotels due to the bed, hoping to get a softer bed that didn’t seem as if we were sleeping on the floor. No such luck. We are in a nicer place, but the bed is the same. If this is standard it could be a long trip around China.

We also had to track down a sim card for the phone today. This was not too bad.

Leopard mounting waterbuffalo ?!? WTF…?

There are plenty of phone shops, but the sale of sim cards is regulated to the telecoms themselves. We made our way to the large China Mobile building, and started the process. Luckily we had a friendly guy that stayed with us for the entire process. This meant going to a computer, picking a phone number (which I did at random. Not too many 8’s or 9’s for us) then selecting the plan.

Pancake dinner.

After this you are supposed to wait in line until your number is called, but we did get a bit of preferential treatment here, and skipped the cue. Now it was passport and photos. This took a few more photos than necessary, some with the assistants phones (probably to prove to their friends that they had served a weird foreigner). Paying for it and then waiting for the sim card to be created. All done.

From start to finish about half an hour. 100 yuan for the card and some starting credit then 39 yuan a month for 300mb data and about 1000 minutes talk time!

That obstacle done, we walked across the city to a couple of pagodas. These were a bit disappointing as they are brand new, and not that detailed, but was still a good walk through different parts of the inner city (Kunming is at least 4.5 million people)

Then a bus back to where we were staying. Not much for the day, other than a close encounter with the bureaucracy and a very long walk!

23 March 2017

Shilin (Stone Forest)

Today was all about Karst. Anna says “They are stones, look at the photos”

Tourguides have to dress up in traditional gear. Some really don’t seem to like it..

The UNESCO site of Shilin. It is one of the largest karst landscapes in China at around 500 square kilometres. Those of you that have read the past blogs on UNESCO sites know I like to bitch about them. They serve a great purpose, but drive me nuts. This was no different. Take out the fact that it took over an hour to cross the city to the east bus station and then another two hours to travel the roughly 90kms to the site. The real fun started when we got there. It had the UNESCO price tag (of course) but then you had to pay an extra 25 yuan to take a “battery bus” to the site. The bus itself drops you roughly a kilometre away from the ticket office, which is a further 3.5kms from the gates! OK, Bitching over.

The Karst landscape is formed by limestone and softer rocks. The soft rocks dissolve or wear away over time leaving limestone pinnacles sticking up all over the place. This one is a bit different as basalt is thrown into the mix as well. The hills are made up of winding paths through, around and over the pinnacles in a chaotic mix of open spaces and high rocks. Over the centuries, monks have carved steps and inscriptions into the rocks which have been expanded on to accommodate tourists.

There is a fantastic lake and grass area which would be great for family picnics or to laze around after a long walk, and a road around the main attractions that the battery buses follow.

We hit out straight away for the minor section, and wound our way through the rocks. Some of these are named by people with better imaginations than us, as you had “the woman waiting for her husband” “phoenix checking its plumage” and “deep and narrow gorge” That last one should have been labelled “Bloody steep and narrow staircase down, and painful climb back up the other side.” As you can guess, there was a lot of ups and downs. After spending a few hours wandering around, through, under and over these rocks we came across the road again.

Thinking we had paid for a ticket to drive round we may as well do so. There were about three sections of the park that we had skipped, and thought we could at least see them from the road before we returned to Kunming. Catching the battery bus was easy (Well, extended golf cart rather than bus) and it drove us back past the sections we had done to the exit.

Everyone got off except us. We had at least two hours before the last bus left for Kunming, so thought we would do the entire loop. It couldn’t take longer than that could it? This confused our driver no end, especially with our gestures of big circles. Giving up on us, she drove us to the start of the loop and pointed to join another bus. We thought they just drove round and round in circles, but her shift must have been up.

Jumping on another one, we set off after a few more passengers had joined us. This is supposed to be hop on and hop off over about five different sections of the park. So about 2 minutes in we reached an area we had passed on our walk, then there was the shepherds area that we had missed, then suddenly we were back to where we had gotten on the first bus! No wonder the last driver thought we were nuts! We had traveled most of the park ourselves on foot, and been driven back from the furthest point. Why would we want to go around again? All up the trip took just over 5 minutes, and no-one even got off the bus (not that they were given a chance to).

Sometimes we are the tourist attraction. (Or just Andrews hair)

Unfortunately we found out that there is another scenic area about 25km from here, but we decided that the 6 hour round trip to come all the way back out here was not worth it, but it did look interesting, with caves and waterfalls and all sorts of neon lights. All that, and we got stuck with some limestone rocks. Still it was well worth the trip out.

One thing we are learning is how long it takes to get from place to place. It was almost a full day excursion doing this trip, and is only about 100km each way!

We checked out other hotels as well. Hoping for a better bead, and no view of the toilet. We found one with a better bathroom, with a solid wall, but the bed is still rock hard! The people were friendly, and with the help of a few different translator apps we got through it! Booked in for tomorrow night.

22 March 2017

Kunming, Our first days in China.

After a long overnight flight from Oz, we landed at Kunming Int’l. Bright and early. Well, not so bright it was still pre-dawn, so pretty dark actually.

So with any new country, it can be a challenge to get from the airport to the city, luckily (for once) we were prepared with instructions on how to get to our hostel. Taking the easy option of getting a taxi. I don’t think either of us was up to navigate the Chinese bus system yet. Passing a couple of lackluster touts we started talking to the guys at the taxi rank. They worked out where we were going, plugged it into their phone map system and loaded our bags. On asking how much it would be they got a bit indignant saying it was a metre system. What did we take them for?!?

At the hostel, we were too early to check in, so we grabbed a map of town, and got directions to the main attractions and off we went.

Cherry Blossoms at the Zoo. A popular photo point

A quick walk to the bus and we hit our first hurdle. How much is a ticket, and does the price change over distance etc? Well, we new buses were supposed to be cheap, so we thought ten RMB would cover it. Not sure why, but the bus driver just waved us on. Couldn’t make change? Not enough? Too much trouble to explain to dumb foreigners? Oh well, we tried.

About ten minutes later we were at the Zoo. Not sure this is where we wanted to go, but there was a temple nearby, Yuantong Temple. It is a nice tranquil temple complex that stretches back quite a way, goldfish ponds and pavilions. A nice typical temple. Just what we needed to ease ourselves back into travelling.

From here we walked around the Green Lake Park. This is the main heart of old Kunming Tourism. At the moment a lot of the different ponds have been drained, but it was still nice walking around and watching people do their dancing, exercising, and similar. We also found out that Kunming has a sister city. It was Wagga Wagga!

Rebuilt Old City Gate. Most of the old buildings here are new.

From there we walked down to the old section of town. This took a couple of false starts, as we were getting turned around, and ended up closer to the hostel than the area we wanted to be!  Luckily the maps.me app came in handy when we realised we were lost, and it got us back on the right track.  So we eventually made it to the Flower and Bird Market.  There wasn’t much left, and the old buildings are crumbling away, or being rebuilt to look like the old style. At the moment this is a market zone with everything from fish and squirrels to walking sticks and the traditional bongs that the old people use here. They are massive! So should have taken a photo!

Back to check in then off to the Bamboo Temple. This is out of town quite a way up a mountain (considering we are already at 2000m above sea level). It was a bit complicated as you have to go to the western bus station then change bus. We were told this and given the bus number to take, but when we got to the station we couldn’t find the bus. It turns out that the bus leaves from across the road and about 500m away from the station. It also didn’t help that the bus is not listed on the boards that were up advertising the bus numbers that stop there (very handy, when it works!)

So a bit of back and forth asking people at each place, until eventually we managed to catch the right bus! Then it was off, winding through the last of the city, and up the hill. There were great glimpses back over Kunming through the trees as we rose higher and higher. Passing a few temples along the way we made it to a stop that everyone thought we should get off, and we had been told to stay on until the end?!? Ok, so the driver asked us where we were going, well I think he did, he could have just been swearing at us dumb tourists for not getting off. Pointing on our map to the name of the temple, we were told it was back the way we had come. He got the police to confirm this for us (they are everywhere, and usually quite helpful). Not knowing what we were missing at this stop, we followed their directions and headed back down the road. At least it wasn’t too busy as there was no room for pedestrians.

So down the hill we went, back to the last temple. On the outside a dust washed brown. Not the famous temple we were expecting, but apparently this was it. Paying the entrance fee and wandered in. It was the right temple. It is famous due to its figurines. These depict people from all ways of life, station, race and level of deformity!! Most of these are now in a couple of rooms at the front with a nun sitting watch to make sure we don’t take photos or damage the figures. She did offer a prayer for us as well. The rest of the temple is well laid out along traditional lines, and is a nice place to wander around in peace from the hustle and bustle of town.

Then it was a repeat to get back to town. It is going to be interesting in China when it takes you an hour and a half to get somewhere to spend an hour looking around and an hour and a half back. What could be a 2 hour trip takes half a day! I suppose this is the price you pay for not doing tours!

Now a few notes on the Cloudland Hostel: This is where we were staying. The girl at the desk first thing in the morning was sweet, but her English was not too good (well, we are in China!), after that it was all downhill. The people were nice, I suppose. If you could drag them away from their computers or phones. Getting information from them was quite hard, and they only supplied information on what was asked. IE, the bus up the mountain. It would have been nice if they told us it was over the road, and not in the bus station. Or even let us know attractions around town, as the only things we visited were things we had looked up before we got there. The info was accurate, but lacking in extra detail. The room itself was interesting. The best thing about it was plenty of international power points. I don’t think I have ever seen so many in a single room before! The most interesting thing was the view. From the bed you had a great view through a glass window onto the toilet and shower! You wouldn’t want to be travelling with just a friend!