Archive for September, 2009

05 Sep

Day 9: Sichuan HotPot Tigers and Bears

In Blog,Uncategorized by Charlie Lawrence / September 5, 2009 / 0 Comments

Our last day in China, breakfast of dumplings from a street vendor, and into the car for the drive back to Guilin. A visit to Steve’s office, local markets for more colour, noise and smells to assault the senses, then lunch to add injury to the assault – Sichuan hot pot.

Steve had to race off to do something, leaving the two off us hot pot virgins to tackle it alone. It was also early for lunch, so although other patrons were arriving, no one else had any food yet. Along with some lamb, beef, greens and mushrooms, there was a curious looking white food, cut roughly 3 cm square. I popped that in the roiling chili soup, waited a moment or two, pulled it out and ate it. It was tough, chewing and largely flavourless, so assuming it was some sort of fibrous root, I didn’t touch anymore. Thank goodness. An hour later when Steve returned I asked what the white stuff was. He grinned. It is chinese food, he said. What is it? I persisted. Pigs throat. Mmmmm. Add that to the list of the weird and wonderful, chalk it up to experience. The rest of the meal gave us the equivalent exprience opposite to that of a brain freeze. The zinging, tingling, chilli buzz envelopes your nostrils, back of your throat and across your scalp as it is washed down with lashing of beer and softdrink.

The chinese seem a mass of contradictions. The hold beautiful things in high regard, yet commercialise everything they can, adding awful lights, no protection of natural assets. like the caves, the mountains, the rivers. Their built environment around here is awful – they cannot pull down the charming older buildings fast enough to replace them with concrete cubes for houses, with aluminium windows in one standard size and bare concrete floors. The toilets are scary, often using the one toilet cubicle space for all ablutions, and the toilet itself as the only drain. Restaurant and hotel room toilets with a hole in the floor for the loo, the shower over this said hole (don’t step in the wrong pace when the shampoo gets in your eyes) Plus the sink has only a hose running from the plughole to the floor, so your handwashing water spreads over the floor on the way to the toilet hole. Never any loo paper, rarely any soap, never any towel. So one must crouch carefully, not getting anything wet, then rustle around for the pack of tissues in your handbag or poclet to fix yourself up some. We managed to avoid any disasters, but we’re glad to be back to familiar abluting.

After lunch, the Bear and Tiger Mountain Village Park – a local zoo stocking mostly tigers and bears. We saw the first couple of enclosures, and thought that must be it. Nup. There must have been over 300-400 tigers at this place. All lounging in the sun, but one enclosure of young tigers (adolescent) were so close, Charlie even touched one on the paw. So unlike home. None of the enclosures looked as good for the animals as the tiger enclosure at Adelaide Zoo looks, not by a long shot. But the scale!! These guys certainly had more space to roam in. There was also a pride of lions, a few deer, and 3 large enclosures with probably 50 – 70 black bears in each. That was the last experience in mainland China before heading to the airport.

A word on HK airport – it is massive. To depart, we had to catch a train from one end of the airport to another. Even with this, we had to walk miles and miles to get to our gate, and again to get from the gate to customs and baggage collection, and then to get to the right terminal to get our bus to our Kowloon hotel. It makes Sydney look like the old Adelaide airport.

HK, back to the bright lights, bustle, shopping, hawkers, markets, people, food and shopping.

The Sechuan HotPot. It’s roiling hotness, a black-red soup of fiery goodness

A man fixes scooters and bikes on the footpath in Guilin.
Within 15 mins he had fixed 3 machines with a deft skill that
would be treasured in other parts.
He just seemed to get shouted at by the clients
he was helping out.

05 Sep

Day 8: Yangshou, Bamboo Rat and Karaoke

In Blog,Uncategorized by Charlie Lawrence / September 5, 2009 / 0 Comments

We skirted Yangshuo on our way to see a couple of the local tourist sites. First the Big Banyan tree, a 1400 year old tree. This one with a fence around it so you can’t climb it, although people were still doing lots of touching. We were there by 8.10, but the monkey men were already there, and the crowds were building. After a photo op with Tory and her Simian friends, we were then on to Steve’s cousins house where he has a restaurant on top of a hill in the country side. The hero of the meal was a still living Bamboo rat in his little trap caught whilst we were ballooning. Restaurants in town do not have a license to serve this gopher type animal, so this was a special treat. After photos, we were asked if we wanted to see it killed – ‘Noooooo’! We did however, catch a glimpse of the bamboo rat being blowtorchedto de-hair the critter before before being tossed in the wok.

Here the pace slowed down a little (after a whirlwind trip with so much to see and the only down time being in the car through mad traffic on poor roads). Our fearless guide has had our days programmed for 12, 14, even 18 hrs, and has barely left our side). Once witnessing the dispatching of the rat, we relaxed on one of their balcony dining areas, beer and water to hand, and read, listened to the birds and cicadas, or dozed in the balmy breeze. After a spot of fishing on the Li river yielded no reward, just an hour of getting hot and thirsty

Time for lunch!! Bamboo rat, a beef like meat but with so very many small bones, and cooked with large amounts of chili. The feet and tail were used to make a soup, then sour beans for Mr Wu, Rice, Greens, and a treat for Steve – a plate of deep fried Cicadas!! This time, Tory tried the cicadas first, but really, one’s enough. Not the taste so much as the knowledge that you have all those legs and antenna in your mouth, getting stuck in your teeth, tickling your throat as they go down. As a rule, in this part of China we could eat very very well, very cheaply. Plain restaurant meals for the 4 of us are only around the 120 – 200 Yuan mark ($20 – $35) with beer included. Meals with more dishes run to 300 Yuan ($50). But delicacies such as Bamboo rat, snake, turtle push the price of the meal up to 600 Yuan, turning a very cheap holiday into an unexpectedly expensive food safari.

We are enjoying our quieter day, with an afternoon of resting and washing, then exploring the tourist town of Yangshuo. We are finally seeing some westerners here, mostly in pairs on backpacking holidays, and the market stall holders are pushier in plying their wares. A treat that had to be sampled was their Green Bean flavoured icecream! It was a dull green color (like overcooked green beans), but had a kind of herbal tea flavour. Not bad, but not gonna replace chocolate icecream on my list of favourites.

We had the local speciality – ‘Beer fish’ for dinner – whole river carp cooked in a beer and tomato sauce. Then it was off for the cultural experience of the local light show – a massive tourist show put on in an amphitheatre by the river. Spotlit mountains (as only the chinese can – they also light them in beautiful colours!), a cast of hundreds and a performance the scale of olympic games opening proportions. Chinese singing can get bit much – sometimes it sounds just like bagpipes – but the show was visually spectacular. The evening was rounded off with a few drinks in a karaoke bar with Steve and one of his employees, in a private room with karaoke up very very loud.

Chinese version of a Hummer – actually very cool!

Tory enjoys a Green Bean Ice-Cream

Mmmm Rat Feet Soup

Mmmm Rat Liver

Mmmm Cicadas – Deep Fried!

05 Sep

Day 8: Early Morning Ballooning

In Blog,Uncategorized by Charlie Lawrence / September 5, 2009 / 0 Comments

4.32am. The all too familiar ring tone of our guide Steve rings through the timber hotel room. We ‘awake’ from the torture instrument that the Chinese call a bed. This was the worst so far in this journey. under the sheet it looks like a mattress but it feels like a freight pallet with a mattress material cover. The edges are solid timber and the middle core is probably ply wood or bamboo.

Bags packed, we climb into our vehicle and with eyes half awake we embark on the drive to Yangshuo. In the distance the strobing glow of lighting sillhouettes the karst peaks and I’m beginning to wonder if taking a balloon trip in China was such a good idea.

We arrive at the base of the mountains in Yangshuo as the team are firing up the first canopy. The red burst of flames echo into the valley as the balloon takes shape and slowly rises up. Given a complimentary cap to guard our hair from the heat above, we hop into the basket and say our last prayers to the ‘travel gods’

Lift off! We rise rapidly above the valley floor into the cool tropical air. A few more bursts of from the burner and we achieve altitude. A gentle breeze takes us along a path which roughly follows the river below. Once we are up 2 more balloons have since inflated and are rising up to greet us. The pilot feathers the burners and air vent causing the balloon to bob and weave it’s ways amongst the peaks. At one moment we are 20m from the river snaking its course and then within 15 frames of my camera – several hundred metres into the upper limits of perceived safety.

As the flight continues the early mist starts to clear and reveal the rising sun. Already at 15º to the land below, it glows a hot pink shrouded by a dragon fist of early morning cloud.

This was truly postcard stuff. A decision to try this experience many months ago has paid off. We saw a thatched green escarpment as far as the eye could see. Fruit and rice, vegetables and chinese greens each in their own compartmentalised space at varying stages in their development. Combined with the mountains fading into the distance it was a moment in time. Once the sun was up, it was time for us to get down, chased by 3 ‘ninja’ balloon catchers around small fields of rice, taro, greens, and oranges. After a false start (too close to the only power line, and no wind at low altitudes to move us away), we were caught and brought down for a soft lading. After a 2 km walk we were back to the car, whilst our able pilot and his ninja crew folded up the balloon.

05 Sep

Day 7: Li River to Xing Ping

In Blog,Uncategorized by Charlie Lawrence / September 5, 2009 / 0 Comments

Another car trip, this time to the Crown Caves on the Li River. We started with a little train ride to the cave entrance, a boat ride along the river in the cave, and elevator ride up to the top of the cave to enjoy the scenery, and in total, 2 hrs spent underground with an amazingly extensive and commercialised cave system. Fluorescent tubes, coloured lights, funny names, guides using megaphones and no rules about not touching the stalagmites or climbing off the path to cuddle one to make nice picture. Another turtle to give money to and pat, another cheesy photo op. to commemorate your visit . Not like this for national parks and wildlife at home.

We then got on a bamboo raft for the 2.5 hr journey downstream to XingPing, just out of Yangshuo. The hills, karst peaks, are breathtaking, and the river ride was a great way to experience it. Our bamboo raft driver was Steve’s uncle, so we stopped at the village of Loao Cheng Tou for lunch and to visit his Aunt and young cousins. Toilets aside, the cleanliness everywhere has struck us. Everything is clean swept, and this very very basic village was spotless. We saw aunties house, very few belongings, a few pieces of utilitarian furniture, but so house proud. Not forgetting our food safari – our cheapest meal for 4 so far. Dried Little River Fish, Pork and Sour Beans, 2 plates of greens, Duck Egg rice, 4 long necks beer, a couple of soft drinks and bottles of water, all for 130 Yuan – $20.

Markets, old village in Xing Ping
XingPing is Steve’s home town. A mix of the old town and new marketplaces. In the late afternoon he took us to his mountain – a hill he owns just out of town, for us to make nature photograph from the top. This impressive hillside affords a wonderful view of XingPing and the Karst peaks.

It keeps on being 35 degrees, humid and very very still, but this afternoon was the clearest so far. Makes us very excited about the hot air balloon ride planned for tomorrow.

05 Sep

Day 6: Back to Guilin

In Blog,Uncategorized by Charlie Lawrence / September 5, 2009 / 0 Comments

A morning stroll through the village afforded more new experiences – a picturesque village with wooden buildings, water lilly ponds, and fresh food markets – freshly butchered meat surrounded by flies. After a walk up a hill for making of natural photograph it was back in the car with the exact same harrowing experience but in reverse. I only wish I had taken photos of the roadworks to illustrate the point. To save my spine I regularly asked the driver to stop for icey cold pijiu. Adfter many rivers, rice paddies and spectacular views we were back in San Jiang for another lunch experience with Steve and his dodgy, stereotype looking business partners. Walking into the now familiar restaurant we walked past a curious bamboo plate balancing on the fish tank, I got in for a closer look. Someone had extracted a bee hive cut it open and jiggling within was about 1000 bee larvae squirming in the their honeycomb confines – complete with Queen bee attending to her babies. Noticing our curiosity we were pounced on asked if we’d like to try. Mmmmm, no thanks. Anywho, food time again – Lamb Hotpot (Lamb Soup), Sour Beans with Chilli, Steamed Catfish, Baby Water Buffalo with greens and garlic.

Our next leg of the journey was from San Jiang back to Guilin. The road improved, but the four 4hr trip was broken by a wander around a small town with a wind rain bridge (there are many in Dong towns), and a visit to the school for a toilet break. It was the worst toilet Tory had seen so far. Eight hip height cubicles with a central trough into which all matter flows. And as this was the end of the summer holidays, not much flow, but plenty of sit around in the sun. Mmmm. The next toilet stop at a petrol station (did we mention the beef we had yesterday? – made for many trips to local toilet facilities) was the second worst – mens and ladies toilets adjoined, such that all had to squat over a central trough, and watch anyone else’s business wash by. Soiled business dispeneries were placed in open bucket next to you. Charlie found it all a bit much.

Dinner was not very appealing that night, back at the restaurant in Guilin, As a treat, Steve had arranged river turtle for us – again, gutted and cleavered; feet, toes, lips, gullet and all, and shell to suck on. I was very brave and tasted it, but really, frogs and turtles remain somewhat slimy even after cooking, when they are served with skin on. Duck soup, wild rabbit hotpot, lipu taro (local root vegetable) with smoked pork belly and greens rounded out the meal. Getting a little tired of picking out bones with every bite – eating more vegies now 🙂 We finished the day with a walk around the night markets – every bit as tacky as night markets anywhere.

01 Sep

Day 5: The Road to the Dongs

In Blog,Uncategorized by Charlie Lawrence / September 1, 2009 / 0 Comments

Hiking back down the hill following our tireless Sherpas – god bless their cotton socks. A purchase of some jim jams and some other assorted souvenirs for the offspring we were into the car and a 3 hr drive to San Jiang which is home to the ‘tall Pagoda in all of Guilin’

A pagoda is a traditional ceremonial building and this one in particular was very tall – of which I was too scared to climb to the top. Tory was not and giggled as she passed my sweaty, scared carcass.

Again another feast followed of Wild Pig Skin Soup, Meat with Mushrooms and other assorted veggies and rice. I’m beginning to think our guide believes that I’m an alcoholic because as soon as I sit I have 2 cold long necks to next to me each time. Although Im not complaining yet!

Little did we know that the the following 4 hrs would be some of the worst driving experience I’ve ever had. It makes the drive to Mt Squires in the Simpson Desert feel like a Gelati licking stroll along the parade.

The autonomous government of the day thought it imperative to build a new highway through the mountains for a length of 150km by hand. It seemed that there may have been a workforce of 20 something (females mainly) laying concrete and screeing with whatever odd trowel at their disposal. Whilst this was happening the road eventually became a one lane goat track which accommodated every bus and truck that was decided to venture north or south along it. With no-one ever ever ever ever (and ever) yielding right of way this made for some very harrowing driving by our man Wu. To illustrate this point we saw 2 over turned lorries on the side of the road wing mirror deep in the paddies. Happening only minutes before we arrived.

This drive of course was to visit the Minority Village of the Dong people. Arriving after dark we were treated to the bamboo flute show. A local band in celebration for the Summer harvest. I purchased a bottle of rice wine (empty long neck filled from plastic tub in village square) and sat down with the locals to enjoy some local hospitality. What tasted like warm chardonnay mixed with cheap vodka, it was good juice in its purest form.

Dinner was hand made Sweet and Sour pork made by our guide Steve in his friends cafe kitchen, we were also treated to the bum burning experience of the local delicacy – fried dried beef with local mountain chili. Think of Territory Jerky steeped tabasco and then fried in oil and then topped with rounds of chili, served in chili oil. It had some chili in it. Tasty as buggery and as painful as the next day. Apparently.

01 Sep

Day 4: Rice Terraces and Frogs

In Blog,Uncategorized by Charlie Lawrence / September 1, 2009 / 0 Comments

An early morning Bamboo raft ride on Li river to ‘make a nicer natural photograph’. So many locals out and about – swimming, washing clothes, washing bodies or just bobbing along in the current that was very swift in the shallower parts of the river. Those not in the water were exercising on the banks – any old movement seems to go – back bends, arm circles, (looked very much like they were waving, but it seems, they were not). Others played badmington or practiced chi ball.

Long drive out of town, through gradually poorer areas of Guilin, past market gardens, and into the country side – very small landholdings where people grow chickens or ducks, or leafy greens that can be bought at the market on the day they are picked. First stop was Huang Le village, a town recognised by the Guinness book of records for having the most women with long hair, up to 1.8m in length. After enjoying a cultural show, with faux marriage ceremony (apparently, the women pinch you on the bum if they like you), tea with crunchy rice bubbles in it, and demonstration of the long hair, we walked through the timber village and over a precariously swinging bridge back to the car.

More driving up steep, winding roads, an occasional rockslide to skirt, and hairpin bends with no guard rails and a relaxed approach to staying on the right side of the road, we arrived at the car park for Ping An village. For 20 Yuan ($3.50), little sherpa women from the village will load our packs in there baskets and carry them the 45 minute walk up the stony path with rough hewn steps, muttering at us when we pass.

First stop lunch. For lunch we had chicken and rice cooked in the tube of a bamobo stem. And washed down of course with Ying Ping Bing Pijiu (bottle of icey cold beer). After lunch we checked into the hotel in the side of the mountain – of which all the materials had to be carried up on the back of woman in a basket or by donkey.

In the afternoon a leisurely hike through the Li Jiang Rice Terraces was breathtaking – showing us the luminescent staggered vistas for miles into the distance.

Again we are back to eat some more – it seems that this holiday is turning a gastronomic journey of southern china than a health retreat based on the assumed hiking we’d be doing.

Dinner was Wild Mountain Frog (again the animal is cleaved into bite sized chucks) fried with the obligatory wild chilli and garlic. Tory was not too excited to receive the said frogs hopping equipment. As well as frog we had the Chicken Soup and vegetable with egg. After dinner, Tory was treated to an hour long massage whilst I enjoyed many more cold pijiu on the balcony bar overlooking the valley.