Useful apps and websites when traveling in China

This is a list of apps and sites that might help you when traveling around in China. We traveled there for two months and went through big cities as well as small villages. Please note that your patience will be tested when surfing/browsing as the connection speed can be frustratingly slow and this is the case in most places.

  • Express VPN (app): As you might know Google, Facebook, Twitter,… are blocked in China. You’ll therefore need a VPN service to access these platforms. 
  • Speak & translate (app): Most people do not speak or understand English. Using a translation program is really helpful. You’ll find written as well as audio translation in both Mandarin and Cantonese.
  •  Whatsapp (app): It is not blocked, so I was thankfully able to use it to connect with my family.
  •  Xe currency (app): This app is helpful when converting between different currencies.
  • WeChat (app): It’s one of the most popular apps in China. It offers a broad range of services (payment, messaging, wifi connection,…). To use it you’ll need a Chinese number.
  • Maps.me combined with Maps (apps): To get around in China I used mainly those two apps. Maps from Apple is more detailed than maps.me but I couldn’t use it offline and that’s where maps.me comes in handy.
  •  Booking.com and Airbnb (apps and sites): They helped us find the right accommodation in the different places we visited, in cities as well as in small villages. I felt that the offers were better on these platforms than Agoda and Hostelworld.
  •  Iqiy (app and site): Offers a large range of free video content. (Movies, music,…)
  • TripAdvisor (app and site): Helpful when you want to have an idea of what to do/see, where to eat/sleep, how to get to a specific location or how much you’ll need to pay for tickets,… 
  •  China DIY travel (website): If you want/need to travel by train, this is a reliable agency that works quickly. Train tickets get sold out rapidly especially during the holiday season. We also used their website to get the train timetable. https://www.china-diy-travel.com/en
  •  Wikitravel (website): You’ll find so much background information about the place you want to visit here as well as very useful transport information (how to get around).

I didn’t mention any cloud storage service for your pictures or videos, because the speed is so dreadful. It takes ages to upload a single image on the cloud. Unfortunately the only alternative for this is to bring an external hard disc and cross your fingers it won’t get stolen or lost.

Advertisements

(Somewhat) off the beaten track in China’s Guizhou

A European travelling in southwest China, you’re likely to visit the provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan. Guizhou? Probably not. Especially not in winter. With a more hectic travel schedule than usual, we squeezed it in and the region really made for a unique experience.

When we just arrived, we met one westerner at a bus station in Duyun, but after that we were completely alone with the Chinese for a week. We get looks everywhere in China, even in Beijing and Shanghai, but never have we felt as out of place as in Guizhou. There’s no point trying to count how many pictures we’ve posed for, let alone how many have been snapped of us in passing. There wasn’t much English spoken, but we still had quite a few conversations with curious locals wondering where we’re from, what we had seen in China and where we were going. We were even treated to a full day out by a friendly couple in Anshun.

We loved the countryside, but didn’t take much liking to the cities. We hated Kaili, disliked Anshun and only toured the train station area of the provincial capital Guiyang – an interesting and friendly place, though not one I’d ever think to describe as pretty or cosy. It’s possible Guiyang’s city centre is nicer, but we didn’t stay an extra day just to check.

The old town of Zhenyuan, however, is a pearl. It’s full of old stone houses, some nice bridges, impressive temples and the southernmost part of the Chinese wall. The main street is clearly geared at Chinese tourists, but behind it there are lots of wonderful alleys. Compared to many of the old villages and towns we’ve visited, where people are putting up large, new stone houses next to the classic wooden ones and where Starbuck’s hides behind traditional walls, this city isn’t changing that much and entire neighbourhoods remain untouched, though in good condition.

Go there for the nature

The landscapes in Guizhou are stunning. Wherever you look, there are mountains or hills, many of them still quite green, and in between you pass one cute village after another. Travelling in early spring, we saw lots of fields full of beautiful yellow flowers. The region has several waterfalls and many caves.

IMG_6788
Guizhou through a dirty train window. Bear with us with the image quality.

We visited the cave in Zhijin, one of the largest in China, during a long day-trip from Guiyang. (If you ever think of doing the same, go from Anshun and cut the trip by 1 hour 20 minute per way. You live, you learn.) We’ve seen caves in Belgium and Japan before, but this was something else. One massive chamber followed another during the 2 hour+ tour in Chinese everybody had to join. It was, surprisingly, rather tastefully lit and there were quite a few printed English explanations of the formations.

To top it off, the train trips were wonderful. We bought hard seat tickets, the cheapest you can find in China, and met lots of locals eager to chat and take a gazillion photos. On the way there, some women fed us eggs, checked our marital status and showed photos from their travels while an old toothless and sunburnt man with a white goatee, a wooden cane and long, carved pipe studied Christophe intently. On the way back, the ticket controller made a big show of telling us that if we had any problems, we could come to him, while the family next to us giggled when our eyes met.

IMG_6178
Leaving the train in Guiyang. Bye bye!

Our trip to the Huangguoshu waterfall – supposed to be the largest in China and, like the cave, very impressive – turned into another display of the kindness and generosity we’ve met in this country. Rui and Lung spotted us in the bus out and took us around in taxis between the sights, fed us and dressed us up in Miao gear, waited for us at the last waterfall that they decided to skip and finally covered our bus ticket back home. No matter how we tried to protest and pay something for them, we were told that we were guests in their country and they wanted to be good hosts. Imagine that back home.

Challenging food and transport

An important part of Guizhou’s population belongs to various minorities and their villages are interesting to visit. We hoped to see a few, but only managed one – the large Miao village of Xijiang – as some of the region’s famous street food sent us to bed with food poisoning. Guizhou won’t score high on our culinary chart as that put us off the street food for a while and that’s really THE thing to eat there, it seems. The Anshun delicacy of dog meat is another option. We were impressed by one of the local specialties, though: Fish in sour soup. It’s much better than it sounds.

Guizhou was more difficult to travel in than many other parts of China we’ve visited, but far from impossible. It just takes more time as you deal with more local busses, slow trains, mountain roads and large distances. Add a sizeable language barrier and you really feel a sense of accomplishment every time you manage to do a day-trip. Then again, that’s part of the charm, even though you might forget it when you’re on your ninth hour of travel and waiting time.

Finally, a note on the weather. I read about Guizhou being nicknamed Greyzhou and, well, we had about two hours of sunshine during our week in the province, but luckily not much rain. It wasn’t freezing, but since heating wasn’t a priority in most of our lodgings, we were grateful to still have our sleeping bags to crawl into. I hear summer temperatures in Guiyang are supposed to be excellent, though, in case you’re planning a trip.

Guangxi to Guizhou in nine hours and six modes of transport

Taking an extended time off to travel is a dream come true and we’re having a lot of fun. Every day brings something new, we get to see beautiful things and meet great people. But it’s not all roses, so to add some perspective, let me share a story from last week.

Friday, February 24. We’re about to leave the villages of Chengyang in the province of Guangxi in southwestern China for the town of Kaili in the province of Guizhou. On the map, the distance is about 326 kilometres. It’s a grey day with intermittent rain. It’s cold enough for us to use our winter jackets, but we’re not freezing.

9:48: Our host literally pushes us out the door. I imagine he’s worried we won’t make our train and spend another night, forcing him to cook unusual stuff from the menu again, although it’s low season and he could spend the evening with his friends in front of a Chinese soap. I’m tempted to ask for take-away just to see the look on his face.

 

SONY DSC
Chengyang Bridge.

We wait for a minibus at the village entrance for about 15 minutes. The police and the ticket vendors (yes, in China, “old villages” have an entrance fee) eye us carefully. We squeeze our backpacks into the back of a grey minivan and board together with a young local. This driver is much more laid back than the Räikkönen who got us out here. He stays below 50 km/h on the small road most of the time and picks people up as he spots them: A tiny, bent-over woman who must be well over 80 years old, a lady with vegetables, an old couple carrying a grandchild in a beautifully embroidered baby-carrier.

10:45. We stop at Sanjiang’s west bus station, cross the river to the east bus station, where we’re supposed to find a city bus to take us to the south train station. In smaller cities, the fast trains tend to arrive at new stations quite far out of town. We ask the ticket vendors at the bus station and get a Chinese answer with some waving in the direction of the freelance taxi drivers. We try to make sense of the bus signs outside and make the mistake of asking some of the middle-aged men waiting around. Taxi, they say. One of the drivers sees his chance. “Can I help you?” he says in English. We explain that we’re looking for the bus, we don’t need a taxi. “I take you. 40 yuan.” Still no. “My taxi. 30 yuan. My taxi or no way.” We decline again. The men laugh and the driver walks off, muttering.

We already know this, but to repeat: Never ask a Chinese man over 40 for help. You’re a foreigner and you should pay the taxi asking price.

We switch tactics and cross the street, heading for the young girl in the pharmacy. With our best bus impression and several attempts to pronounce train station in Chinese, she gets it and draws us a map. Following her suggestions, we confirm with another girl directing pedestrians at a chaotic crossroads.

Solution: Your best bet for real help here is to ask young women. Second comes young men with a school boy look and older women. Stay away from the old guys.

11:25. “Where are you going?” Out of the blue, we’re addressed in English by a woman in her early 20s. Coincidence will have it that she and her friend are also heading for the train station. We decide to catch a bus together, but soon another (quieter and calmer) driver approaches the girls and now we have a better deal. Taxi for 5 yuan a head. Off we go.

It’s great to have an easy conversation for once. We chat with the girl, who’s studying business English in Nanning, about her home town, studies, future plans and our trip. She’s happy to get some language practice. “We don’t see a lot of foreigners here,” she says, adding that when she graduates she’d want to show Sanjiang to visitors from abroad.

 

img_6098
Our new friends from Sanjiang.

11:50. The girls pick up the ticket they need and head back to town. We’re in for a long wait in the unhospitable train station and arm ourselves with chips and cookies.

This really is outside the standard tourist route and we’re an unusual sight. Two kids nearby watch us, hide their faces, then look again. It’s a game where they study us, but when we spot them they hide with mommy. The parents are amused. The old woman diagonally opposed me gives us a constant, unabashed stare. She chews on something for a long time. Looking me straight in the eye, she puts her hand out and spits whatever it is out into it. We keep eye contact. She discusses us with her less interested husband. Comments are made on our chips, I’d say. Some teenagers come up for selfies and others simply take photos without announcement. Oh, have we gotten used to “casual” selfies where we “accidentally” fit in the background.13:32. The new fast train to Duyun gets us out of a more than 10-hour bus ride. It’s quiet and efficient and we arrive in no time.

14:39. It’s raining for real in Duyun. We wander around the depressing station grounds, navigating between the freelance drivers shouting Kaili at us. They realize where we’re going. A police officer directs us to the local bus stop, annoying the drivers. Here we spot something unusual: Another westerner. A quiet one, he confirms that bus #1 goes to the Duyun bus terminal and that there should be plenty of intercity busses heading to our destination. The conversation ends there. No bonding among fellow strangers this time. Little did we know, but he was to be the only non-Chinese we would see during our week in Guizhou.

15:00. Bus #1 from Duyun’s east train station to Duyun bus terminal. Main event: Bus fills up with school children in their early teens. There’s a lot of pointing, whispers and a few hellos from the brave ones. I try to look at the city, but the window’s fogged up. I spot a large football stadium and traffic.

15:40. We make our way through another horde of drivers looking for customers into the dark, busy station. Inside, a large screen is showing videos of horrifying bus accidents. Filmed by the camera installed on every bus ceiling, you see people try to hold on to their seats when disaster strikes, but every single one flies out the window. Then images of an upside-down bus and bodies spread across the grounds. It’s spectacular footage that sends chills down your spine. Very reassuring. Why show it, you may ask. It’s to motivate people to put their seatbelts on.

16:10. The same video loop continues on the screen inside the bus and I try not to see this as a sign that we should have taken trains via Guiyang to Kaili instead. The ticket agents were trying to scare us into that option by saying that China’s bus drivers are “killers” – that’s their actual words – but we didn’t want to give them the extra sale that easily. Now I’m starting to wonder if this will be the day when the appalling driving here finally ends in an accident. The added police presence doesn’t help – we have two officers go through the bus for unknown reasons – and the driver repeatedly redirects passengers from the middle seat in the back to seats where there are belts.

18:00. We don’t die. The driving’s bad, but we get to Kaili. Somewhere in the traffic jams at the end of this trip my patience starts to wear off. It’s been a long, grey, wet day that’s unlikely to come to any kind of beautiful ending. We’re tired and fed up with transport, the yelling, the shoving, the spitting and the constant loud hawking that comes before the spitting. (All busses have trash and spit buckets, should you need them.)

img_6117
The bus station in Kaili.

18:10. Backpacks on again. The street outside the station is full of cars, vans, pedicabs, scooters, taxis, freelance drivers, busses, dogs, people and a million food carts. It’s a jumble without straight lines. Old women carry vegetables in baskets hanging from a bamboo stick they place across one shoulder. Old men walk slowly down the street. Students on their way from school eat noodles from paper cups and comment us loudly. Mothers carry their small children in colourful baby-carriers on their backs. Drivers shout for customers. About a third of Guizhou’s population is made up of minorities and you see a lot of different clothing and women with their hair in buns on top of their heads, decorated with big flowers or pearls. Up close, I notice most buns aren’t real hair, but fisherman’s yarn. You smell the exhaust fumes mixed with tobacco smoke, some kind of chilli spice and old frying oil. The rain has stopped, but the whole scene feels damp. Grey clouds hang low, just above us, threatening more water.

We join some 30 others at the bus stop and wait for #9. It’s a popular bus and very full. Standing, we try to keep our balance during the sharp starts and stops. The two-year-old girl on the seat next to me sings and draws with her fingers in the window condensation.

Kaili won’t win any beauty pageants, but if someone ever organizes a competition for most congested traffic in a city of half a million inhabitants, I’d say it has a good chance at the gold medal.

img_6102
Kaili. The picture’s unfair, as the traffic’s very light, but no one had the time or energy to pull out a camera or phone during peak rush hour.

18:40. It’s almost dark when we get off the bus, but we find our bed for the night fast: 7 Days Inn, a cheap hotel chain we already tried in Harbin. Just like then, the reception staff doesn’t seem to know what to do with us, but after some communication via the translation app on Christophe’s phone we pay our fee and get our key.

18:57: We enter our room. There’s some humidity problems and you can step through the top layer on part of the floor, but the heating works and the toilet flushes.

20:00. Our quest for food in the neighbourhood resulted in two cups of our standard brand of instant noodles. Sitting in bed, I swear it’s the last ones I’ll ever eat – a promise I know I’m bound to break in a few days.

On this trip, the journey is as important as the destination. Going somewhere is not just transport, it’s a chance to live with the locals. Mostly we love it, but this day felt extra long and exhausting. We celebrated in style with food poisoning the following day. (The noodles were innocent, in case you’re wondering.)

img_6103
7 Days Inn. The sweet end of a long day.

Four things to do in Macau other than gambling

My idea of Macau used to be a scene from a Bond movie where Daniel Craig steps off a boat taking him to a casino. The night is dark, the building is warmly lit and everybody’s impeccably dressed. The place oozes money.

Now that we’ve been there, I’ve revised that image a bit. Sure, there are lots of casinos, but reality is different. The city lights capture the smog, the casino colours are more harsh than soft and we didn’t need to worry about the dress code. However, we didn’t go to Macau to gamble and it’s not the only thing to do there either. This is what we did:

SONY DSC
Macau has room for many religions: Taoism, Christianity and money, for example.

See the historic city centre. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish a permanent trade base in China in the middle of the 16th century – in Macau. They stayed ntil 1999. The city centre has a great mix of styles. Some buildings remind you of southern Europe, some of the Middle East, some are old Chinese and then of course there’s the newer creations.

In the heart of the centre, around Largo do Senado and the St Paul’s ruins, the main streets were overcrowded, but we found some quieter streets and pretty parks a bit further north and south.

Visit the islands. Macau is made up by the Macau peninsula, the two islands Taipa and Coloane and the reclaimed land in between, Cotai. We spent half a day walking around the old streets of Taipa and enjoying our only hours of sunlight in Macau. There’s a spot where you have the old town at your back while looking out over some wetlands onto the Macau version of the Las Vegas Strip. It’s a bit odd. We had plans to get out to Coloane, which is supposed to be less touched by the high-speed development, but didn’t make it.

Eat. We had a lot of good food in Hong Kong and didn’t expect anything that special from its little neighbour. Wrong we were. Everything we ate was very good, but we randomly walked into one specific place that we really fell for: Naughty Nuri’s. We stopped there both because it looked nice and because the name reminded us of friends from home – Victor and Nassima. It was good enough to bring us back more than once and, sitting in the Chinese countryside, what wouldn’t we do to get some of their noodles or grilled ribs…

Watch people gambling. Even if you’re not a gambler yourself, it’s still interesting to walk through a few of the casinos.

Partly, you want to look at the venues themselves. They are big, gaudy and fake to the extent it gets interesting. There’s a mini indoor/outdoor Venice, complete with Italians singing for Chinese tourists as they navigate the canals in their gondolas, an Eiffel tower and Place de la Concorde fountain, random dance and mime performances, fountain shows accompanied by music and lights everywhere.

Then there’s the people, bussed around from one casino to another. (In Taipa, we thought we’d get a free ride home with the casino bus going to Sand’s on the main peninsula, close to where we stayed, but when we got on the bus it drove us to the Sand’s on the other side of the road. It couldn’t have been more than 400 meters.) You see very serious and sober Chinese men in fancy suits, the regular tourists in their jeans and trainers, pretty girls in high heels, and the children of the wealthy, laughing while losing sums that would have bought us a couple of weeks more in the city. One guy – he couldn’t have been much older than the required 21 – casually dropped the equivalent of 5,000 euros on the table for the croupier to exchange for chips. Laid-back and chewing gum, it seemed his night was only starting.

However, I need to point out that we only saw the small spenders. The really big players will sit in private rooms, far away from the regular folks. It’s something else than the black jack table in your regular Finnish bar.

We missed a couple of things: Shopping, catching one of the shows – we hear the one with motorcycle jumps through fountains should be good – and bungee-jumping off the Macau Tower. Maybe next time.

SONY DSC
Macau Tower, the highest bungee-jump in the world.

Welcoming the Year of the Rooster in Hong Kong

Happy Year of the Rooster!

By unimaginable luck and skills on the side of our agent’s, we got train tickets to take us from Shanghai down to Shenzhen at the start of the Chinese New Year – also known as the largest human migration on earth. We put on our imaginary armour and prepared for a rough trip, but it went like a breeze, almost disappointingly easy.

Chinese New Year means family time, firecrackers, lanterns, flower markets, temple visits, gifts, red envelopes with money, the smell of incense and burning paper, crowds and empty streets, business downtime as well as bargain hunting at the sales, traditional food and dragon dances. We spent the bulk of it in Hong Kong, a city that really opens the festivities up to visitors.

January 27 – New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with a family dinner and, since the ‘80s, with a four-hour TV gala, watched by Chinese across the world, one of our hostel hosts explained. Add a visit by Santa and it sounds a bit like Christmas at home. In Hong Kong, people often visit one of the city’s flower markets after dinner so we headed to the famous one in Victoria Park.

Half the market was flowers (lots of orchids), half was other merchandise, mostly pillows (I still don’t know why), with mandatory snack stalls sprinkled on for good measure. Teenagers on chairs shouted pillow marketing in Cantonese and gave us the impression they were collecting money for school trips or some other kind of cause. The florists were serious business people, quick to exchange buds and blossom for dollars. The orchids were popular, but lots of people left with coloured willow as well.

January 28 – New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day means a big evening show and parade in Hong Kong. We squeezed into a strategic position in between of some sedentary flower pots, the front railing and two robust Chinese men armed with selfiesticks and phones and got pretty decent views of the performers dancing by. We were there about two hours early and watched some twirling school children and superheroes warm the crowd up before the main performers arrived.

It was a lot more international than we had expected. There were the classical dragon dancers and Chinese school troops, but also US cheerleaders, French dancers in butterfly costumes, Germans on stilts, Italians with trumpets, Spanish carnival dancers and a Russian man in suit and sunglasses, making cotton candy to cool tunes. But it was long, colourful and well worth the wait and the sharp elbows of the Chinese grandmother who squeezed herself and her family into a prime slot between us and an Indian family.

After the parade, the streets in Kowloon teemed with life; the music and laughter of the bars and restaurants spilling out onto the streets through open doors and windows. It felt like a big party.

January 29 – Second Day of the New Year

Famous all over China, Hong Kong’s New Year’s fireworks were almost as spectacular as we had hoped, although the heavy fog that had surrounded the city all day drowned out some of the higher flares. For fear of accidents and fires, a lot of large cities have banned firecrackers and public fireworks are a way of compensating for this. Despite the weather, the panoramic views of the huge, half-hour performance over the Victoria Harbour, between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the mainland, was truly impressive. Just like the previous evening, the event turned into a big party as we walked through the streets of Wan Chai.

January 30 – Third Day of the New Year

The third day, known as red mouth, is a day when you’re likely to get into an argument, so it’s better not to visit anyone. I’m thinking it may be linked to four days of family dinners as well… Even though people were supposed to stay home, we joined seemingly thousands of others heading for the Che Kung Temple.

Visiting temples to bring luck for the year ahead is an important tradition and most of the temples we peeked into during the holidays had several worshippers burning incense and stacks of paper. However, Che Kung took it all to a new level, we noticed, as we were funnelled into a 45-minute waiting line just to get in the doors. Luckily for us, it was only 10 minutes in practice, but for the poor souls on the other side of the street, the forecast was probably correct.

Inside, there wasn’t much other choice than to follow the crowd around a tall statue of the Song Dynasty general Che Kung. After the tour, many worshippers kneeled down to shake a box of wooden sticks, having their fortune told based on the numbers on the sticks that fell out. Back outside, we switched to a more commercial tone at a large market selling colourful pinwheels in sizes of big, larger and giant.

The second event of the day was a trip to the horse races, another local New Year’s tradition. Christophe and I have never watched horse racing before and were a bit lost among the avid betters studying complicated program sheets and placing surprisingly large sums on their favourite animals. After a lot of confusion, we placed a feeble ten dollars on number seven, which ended up second to last. Betting might not be our thing, but it was fun to watch the people eat, drink and cheer, with no sign of any arguments.

February 11 – Last Day

The Chinese New Year officially lasts for 15 days, although a regular person’s holiday will be much shorter. We spent those days in Hong Kong and Macau and returned to the mainland for the last celebration: The Lantern Festival in Guangzhou.

Most of the day was spent in and between busses and trains, crossing the Macau-mainland border and exchanging our last Hong Kong dollars and Macau patacas for yuan. It was dark before we could put our bags down in the province capital and ask our host how to get to the festival. “It’s in Yuexiu Park, but there will be a lot of people there,” she said.

She wasn’t kidding. We had finally found the classical Chinese horde and our Hong Kong experience was nothing next to the sea of people walking left, right, back and forward in a mess that I can’t describe. You have to feel the pull of the crowd. But the weirdest bit that despite the lack of order it was very efficient. I was close to calling it off when I realized we had to get tickets from somewhere before entering, but I have spent more time queuing for cash at the Brussels airport ATM. Stumbling over prams and using our new-found elbow skills we got in in no time.

The Lantern Festival is also celebrated as a Chinese Valentine’s Day and the park was full of young couples taking cute selfies. I can see it: You, me and 20,000 strangers – how romantic.

Walking around the park, we saw anything from humble lanterns in the shape of flowers and birds to large displays naturally following the rooster theme. Along the path hung traditional red lanterns. It was like one last explosion of colour, emotion and size, old tradition taken to a new, electrical level, connecting thousands in a country of more than a billion.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

img_4846

Hong Kong and why we need to move there

After travelling for more than eight months on the same continent, you’d think we’d get too accustomed to it, a bit blasé even. Hong Kong is another proof that’s not the case. The first days here, I walked around with a big smile on my face. Everything is amazing. The smell of summer in the south, the chatter of birds, the warm light, the mix of languages and ethnicities, the well-swept streets that are always dirty enough, the old apartment blocks and retro infrastructure, the constant presence of the sea and the excellent food – we love it. It’s a city to lose yourself in and a place difficult to leave.

Entering it was easy, though. We got off the 19-hour train from Shanghai to Shenzhen at 6:24 AM. There were only four of us left in the compartment and the platform outside was dark and empty. The early hour was ideal: It didn’t take us long to find a sign pointing toward the Hong Kong border and the lines were short.

Leaving mainland China and entering the special administrative region of Hong Kong was surprisingly fluid. We’d had more security checks getting around on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Passport check, stamp, bag scan, temperature check, passport check, receipt of little ticket, nothing to declare at customs and there we were – in a metro station in the same country, but behind a clear border, in a region with its own currency, English as second official language and free access to Google and Facebook. All in less than an hour.

Hong Kong is an intense city. Everything and everyone is competing for space here. The buildings, the hills, the trees, the cars, the boats, the tourists, the locals. Yet it seems to work. There is a lot less honking and pushing than we experienced the past month. Heck, people even stop to let you pass or say “excuse me” when they need to squeeze by. Not all, of course, but comparing this to Beijing and Xian, it’s a world of difference. Even China’s omnipresent scooters have disappeared.

The rugged, somewhat dirty, but often colourful 30-40-storey apartment blocks look like they were built a couple of decades before the high-rises of Korea and mainland China. Squeezed tightly together in the little flat space Hong Kong offers, they stretch upwards, like arms grabbing for something, competing with the palm trees and the mountains for reaching the sky first. The mountains win. After a month of leafless winter in a northern China that seems to have lost its forests, the persistent green of Hong Kong’s mountains is just what we need. Most days it’s above 20 degrees warm. When it’s sunny, it feels like a good summer day in Finland and when it’s cloudy like June in Belgium. It rains a little bit and we realize we haven’t had rain since we visited the tea plantations in Korea two months earlier. East Asian winters really are dry.

We both feel at home in Hong Kong fast, probably because it reminds us a lot of home in Europe. Hong Kong was ruled by the Brits from the middle of the 19th century until 1997, with exception for three years of Japanese occupation during the second world war. You’re reminded of that through Chinese/English street signs, street names (Queen’s Road, Fenwick Street, Humphreys Avenue), left-hand traffic, double-decker busses (and trams!) and more spoken English than we’ve heard since Europe.

look-right

I also got a bit of a Japan vibe, possibly due to the safety obsession: Don’t take a quiet road home in the night, cover your mouth when you sneeze, wear a helmet if you work in construction, measure your indoor air quality, beware of pickpockets in the subway, let us know if you feel unwell. These little safety alerts and suggestions are way more present than in Korea and China. Wait, there’s a bit of Korea in there too: Protest banners! Haven’t seen those since we left Seoul.

Hong Kong is said to be the place where East meets West and that saying makes a lot of sense. It’s easily the most multicultural city we’ve visited on our journey. The streets are a mix of Chinese, Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle East and European faces, accents and languages, with a sprinkle of American, African and Australian. There are churches, mosques and synagogues and temples for Buddhists, Taoists and Sikhs. Possibly the best part for a traveller making a short stop: that multiculturalism is noticeable in the excellent food. Oh, we had some rogan josh I won’t soon forget, found an excellent Shanghainese place and had some great sushi, burgers, pizzas and stir-fries.

There’s plenty to do in Hong Kong. The area doesn’t look big on a map and we wondered if ten days wouldn’t be too much. Turns out, it’s nothing and Christophe is already suggesting we go back. The city has its pleasures and despite there being more than 7 million people crammed onto those shores, there are lots of hiking trails and islands to explore.

We were lucky enough to celebrate the Chinese New Year here with several days of events, we checked out Lamma and Lantau islands, tried some of the hiking trails, spent an afternoon on the beach (Christophe was the only one not in a wetsuit to enter the water!), killed ourselves on rental bikes (why do we continue to do this when it hurt so much?), took lots of ferries, browsed markets stocked with fakes and one million malls (books in English, check!). To illustrate the mall density: When getting around Causeway Bay I had to go down to the metro every time I wanted to go somewhere else – navigating on street level just made me mix all the stores up. How many Lukfook jewellery shops do you need in one square kilometre?

Correction: We both want to go back. If you know anyone hiring an English/Swedish speaker, do let me know. An apartment in Big Wave Bay would also be good, preferably with a view of the sea. Thanks in advance.

These are some of our excursions:

Lamma Island

We took the one-hour ferry to Sok Kwu Wan near the south of Hong Kong’s third largest island and walked across to Yung Shue Wan in the north. It was a very easy walk, which filled up with tourists as we neared the end point. We found a few quiet spots along the road and lots of lunch places and cafés in Yung Shue Wan. Cute, but very touristy.

Biking on Lantau Island

We took the slow ferry from Central to Mui Wo, where we rented bikes. The breaks worked, the gears seemed to work (turns out they didn’t really manage the reality test) and we headed towards the Shek Pik Reservoir. The south Lantau road was supposed to be relatively flat and without much traffic. Neither was really true and by the time we were back, our legs were all used up. It might have been due to the Chinese New Year, but we were passed by a bus every three minutes and taxis in between of that, none of which were eager to share the road. Heading back, we found a mountain bike trail we could use for most of the road back, skipping the main road – bliss. We didn’t see any buffaloes grazing by the beach, but we found one in the forest.

Lantau’s Big Buddha and Tai O

We returned to Lantau to see the sitting Buddha statue at the Po Lin Monastery. It’s supposed to be the biggest sitting Buddha in the world, but I haven’t checked. It was large alright, and it had a great setting high above the trees on a hill – we had spotted it during our bike trip the previous day – but something was lacking and neither one of us felt too amazed. Next up was the fishing village Tai O, home of the Tanka boat people, where many inhabitants still live in stilt houses on the water. This was really beautiful and, while the village got lots of Tourists, it hadn’t been made into a complete showpiece. You could still find quiet streets with cats, kids and grannies.

Dragon’s Back and the beaches

Dragon’s Back is a ridge on the south side of Hong Kong Island moving up and down like, well, a dragon’s back. It wasn’t particularly difficult and the views were amazing. After maybe an hour and a half the trail went down the ridge and the rest of the walk was through the forest. At the end of the trail, we found the ocean and Big Wave Bay, a cute village full of surfers, café owners, some visitors but void of tour busses. Not a bad day at all.

On our way to Hong Kong ! 

Just made it!!! Both Eva and me were convinced the train departure was in the afternoon. But actually it was leaving at 11:41 and I realised this at 9:20 in the morning after waking up calmly and taking it easy, because we had so much time left… . If we wouldn’t be in one of the biggest cities in the world, Shanghai, I wouldn’t have reacted as stressed. 

Why do these situations always occur when it’s important ? For us it was important because during this season trains generally are sold out for Chinese New Year and we have to leave the country to not overstay in China.
Shanghai – Shenzhen will take us 18hours, it is slow and I can’t help to have a nostalgic feeling of our russian adventures. This because we are traveling in a sleeper train equivalent to the platskart (3rd class) in Russia but Chinese style. The Chinese version is rougher and dirtier but it has all the ingredients of making an epic journey :

  • kids staring at us
  • people shouting in the wagon 
  • a person sitting at the opposite of me in statuesque like manner, really impressive this from 11:41 – 23:58. How does he do it? Is he medidating?
  • salesmen walking around, selling their food. It looks good, but nooooo way I won’t fall for the trap and sit for hours on the toilet
  • a very friendly women talking to us in English about her life and sharing chocolate. That’s always a winner with me
  • a cute couple giggling next to me. I tried to socialise with them, without success though. As far as I understood they went to Shanghai for holidays and are now on their way home to Ganzhou to celebrate New Year with their family (this like the majority of the passengers I assume)
  • a guy telling Eva that I’m handsome, cool I’ll take any compliments since I’m starting to look like Tom Hanks in Castaway…
  • yezzzz I can stretch my legs completely without anyone bumping continuously against my feet
  • fireworks being launched in the villages we pass by
  • 21:30 “LIGHTS OUT!” was yelled loudly by the carriage attendant and a couple of minutes later all lights were out and no noice was to be heard. Really impressive. In Russia people would still be talking/whispering, drinking together, singing, playing guitare… . Yeps this is definitely Chinese style 🙂
  • waw I can see the stars shining, beautiful, how fitting together with Coldplay’s Midnight, goosebumps

I’m enjoying the ride so far and try to occupy myself by listening to music and reminisce about our travels. Thinking about the places we have been to, the people we have met,… 

It’s been now almost 9 months Eva and me started this trip. It’s an amazing experience, I never thought I’d be able to handle this. These were so far the challenges I encountered.

You need to :

  • adapt yourself continuously, you are a guest and not home
  • find ways to make yourself understood, some people will do effort to try to understand you and many won’t 
  • learn to accept that you are a passenger. You will have to say goodbye to great people you meet and amazing places you go to. This for me has always been difficult and still is. I hate goodbye’s…
  • learn to not be scared of strangers, be focussed and observant of what’s happening around you and trust the right people, some people will try to get the better of you and you have other people that will dedicate a part of their day giving you a helping hand without asking for anything in return.
  • enjoy the now, the time is here and now, so be present. In the beginning of the trip I was continuously thinking about pictures I should take or stories I should tell to share with family and friends without focussing with what mattered and was happening in front of me
  • be aware that there are times you’ll be homesick. I miss my family and I’m looking forward meeting them again

06:15 the lights are on, we are the only ones but 4 left in carriage number 9 and are soon arriving in Shenzhen. Afterwards we’ll leave China and head to the mythical Hong Kong. Let’s get ready…