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.
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.
Qinglong Dong – temples along the mountain wall, complete with caves.
What we expected Old China to be like.
A grey day in Zhenyuan.
Miaojiang Great Wall – the southernmost part of China’s old defence system.
Beautiful little streets and very quiet in February.
School boys on their way to the snack shop.
If you google Zhenyuan, you’ll get some beautiful after-dark-pictures of the river front, with the street lights mirrored in the water. In February, we got this. Total river reconstruction.
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.
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.
Entering the Zhijin Cave.
Beautiful chambers at the Zhijin Cave.
Walls of the Zhijin Cave.
The chambers were enormous, all slightly different.
This one looks like a Christmas tree.
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.
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.
This guy got really happy when I tried on the outfit of the Miao ethnic group.
Our new friends and us in Miao outfits.
View of the gorge of the main waterfall.
The largest waterfall in China, they say.
Behind the waterfall.
Our first banana tree, first of many.
The last of the falls, and now it finally got quiet. After the last selfie group left, Christophe and I sat looking at the water, alone with the egrets.
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.
Girl in Miao outfit, just before she forecefed me her rice wine.
Old Miao ladies welcoming visitors in Xijiang.
Dance performance in Xijiang, a village showcasing the Miao heritage to tourists.
Old tradition meets Communism.
Xijiang seen from the hotel-filled west bank.
Beautiful houses in Xijiang.
They still use horses to transport construction material up and down the hilly streets.
Guizhou street food, the noodle version.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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:
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.
Chinese New Year props in front of Leal Senado.
Quiet side streets, just next to the famous ruins.
Mini Chinese garden inside of a Chinese garden.
St Lazarus Church District.
On our way north of the St Paul’s ruins.
I love the colours and the balconies in this city.
Mosaic with a Portuguese feel.
Garden, on our way home.
View of Macau peninsula from the Guia Fort. Not the prettiest city we’ve seen on this trip, though it has its charms on street level.
One of the Chinese streets.
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.
Taipa’s quiet, old streets.
Vocal cat we met in Taipa.
Wetlands and casions, what a combination.
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…
Oh those ribs…
We had a nice chat with Macanese Man a Nuri’s.
This guy gets a photo because of how he pulls off a pretty unique costume.
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.
The landmark: Grand Lisboa Casino.
Dragon on screen in between of rather impressive fountain shows.
Sneaked a picture inside one of the casinos. The slot machines were usually unmanned – the table games were more popular. Some rooms were more crowded, but generally we were surprised at how empty most places looked, just a bit past the Lunar New Year.
Excited grandmother, mother and daughters taking a gondola ride.
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.
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.
Wishes for a good year at a Taoist temple.
You could smell the temples from afar because of all the incense. Lots of them had hung it down in spirals like this.
On Lantau Island you have more space so you can burn more serious incense.
Smoky celebration at Po Lin Monastery at Lantau Island.
Giving out discount tickets.
We came across several big congregations of women on the city’s upper walkways. Generations sitting together playing cards, painting toe nails, laughing, eating.
We asked a couple of people what was going on, if they were waiting for someone, but got surprised looks back. “It’s a time to see family,” one girl said.
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.
Orchids, lots of orchids.
Post-dinner flower market visit.
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.
Dragon dance. But the dragons are quick.
Little chicken giving their all.
Hear the lion roar.
Italians with trumpets.
Memories of Obon in Japan.
Kisses from the belly dancers.
This is how we saw part of the parade. The old woman next to us was extremely trigger happy, documenting the event in detail.
Happy New Year!
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.
Foggy night for fireworks, but it was popular all the same.
Fireworks over Victoria Strait.
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.
Commerce at Che Kung. Buy your incense and paper stacks.
The importance of incense.
Touring Che Kung.
Shaking sticks out of the box to see what the new year has in store for you.
Leaving the busy Che Kung Temple.
Turns out pinwheels are important at Chinese New Year.
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.
The happy audience.
Competing for first place.
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.
One of the more spectacular lanterns.
Night time at the pond.
A piece of home: Angry birds.
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.
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.
Sunrise as seen from the south of Kowloon on our last morning. Sad to leave this city.
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.
Go to the old fishing village Aberdeen, they said. I don’t know about you, but back home our fishing villages look different.
Man parking his boat while being barked at by guard dog.
Soho residents want it quiet at night.
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.
Walking around Victoria Peak on Hong Kong island gives you a view of the city below and Kowloon on the mainland across the water.
Wall near the Central-Mid-Levels escalator.
The key to successful marketing is to make your message stand out.
One of all the night markets.
Somewhere in there, there’s a logical line for taking the tram to Victoria Peak. We decided to take the bus.
Hong Kong by night as seen from Victoria Peak. February means fog over here, lots and lots of it.
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.
Reaching for the sky.
I used to think that post-WWII buildings were all about grey and beige concrete or glass and steel. Here we also have colour.
For smaller construction projects you can use bamboo as scaffolding.
Asia will for me forever be equal to private air-conditioning units.
One hour by ferry and you’re in the middle of greenery on Lamma island.
Feels like summer again!
Home sweet home. First floor, no window and the smell of mould giving you a warm, damp greeting as you enter. Long-term budget accomodation during Chinese New Year isn’t easy to come by here, so you take what you can get.
Ladder Street lunch stop.
Ladder Street deserves its name. Hong Kong island’s flat at the harbour, then it’s just up, up, up.
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.
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.
After huge anti-president protests throughout Korea, it got very quiet in China. Hong Kong’s different.
Even the busses were spreading the message.
Stay away from bird flu.
The most detailed hygiene description I’ve seen since Japan, but then people rarely sneezed in your face here.
The correct way of handling subway dizziness.
Is the thief bowing in obedience or just very ashamed of himself?
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.
Hong Kong Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
A more modern touch, both the architecture and the traces of pollution.
Hong Kong – the city of small temples squeezed in among giant buildings.
Inside one of the Taoist temples around Aberdeen.
A shrine doesn’t have to be grand to count.
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:
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.
Sok Kwu Wan.
One of the calmer beaches. Those near the north were bursting with families out for the day.
Yung Shue Wan on the north of Lamma.
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.
Lunch stop on Cheung Sha Beach.
Cows chilling on the beach.
Lantau’s famous for its buffaloes. We found one.
Sometimes we had a downhill strech, but mostly it was uphill. Or so it felt. To make it better, the gears on our bikes didn’t work.
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.
Heading up toward Lantau’s Big Buddha.
At 34 meters tall, this is said to be the highest sitting Buddha in the world. I’m taking their word for it.
View from the over-renovated (or just new?) Po Lin Monastery.
Shrimp shells drying in the sun.
Picturesque Tai O.
The best part of the village was that I only spotted one posh café and a few tourist streets. Lots of it looked really lived-in.
Street guardian in Tai O.
Tai O’s biggest disappointment: Litter. Litter everywhere! Unfortunately not an unusual sight in Hong Kong.
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.
Looking west from Dragon’s Back.
Shek O in the morning light.
Dragon’s Back hiking trail. Up and dow we went, but the fun was over too soon.
We took an early train from Beijing and finally got to see some (relatively) smog-free landscapes. We spent the nine-hour train trip to Harbin, capital of China’s northernmost province Heilongjiang, in front row seats, well located close to the hot water tap, though unfortunately near the toilet, the door of which didn’t shut well. The baby behind us spent the trip kicking Christophe’s seat when it wasn’t screaming. But at least we were together, although our original seats weren’t. A man had insisted on moving back in the train for me, even though his family was sitting up front – the friendly image of the Chinese we had got in Qingdao and Qufu continued.
The most striking thing about the landscape was how flat and used it was. Hour after hour, we passed well-maintained fields, some villages and smokestack towns, greenhouses, more fields and people collecting straw on them and occasionally a shepherd tending his flock. No square meter seemed to go to waste. Sometimes we passed some lonely-looking mountains. We never saw a “real” forest – strange after the forested landscapes of Japan and Russia – but we saw quite a few young trees planted along roads and ditches and in batches here and there. Maybe signs that some slight “reforestification” is taking root here? We also passed some wind turbines. Both felt like small pieces of good news after a polluted week in Shandong.
At Harbin’s west train station, we walked in circles for a while, following the signs for the metro, before realizing the metro hadn’t been built yet. It was late, and at -10 degrees, it was much colder than we were used to, so we opted for the luxury of a taxi. A police officer sitting in a golf-cart stopped us on our way to the line, saying there were no taxis. His English ended there, but after some confused communication about busses and street names, he decided to get us a car anyway. Things got hectic. He rushed off upstairs, turning to wave at us to hurry up. We ran to a taxi drop-off spot where he grabbed a cab on its way out, forced the unwilling driver to stay and all but shoved us into the car. We shut our doors as the driver speeded out of the building and 30 death-defying minutes later he dropped us of. By some miracle, no one died on the ice-stained roads.
Harbin is very pretty. Like Qingdao, the city centre is marked by foreign influence, in this case mainly Russian. A quiet fishing village until 1896, Harbin grew in size as it was connected to Vladivostok, Dalian and later Lake Baikal by a railroad built by the Russians. By the 1920s, more than 100,000 Russians lived in the city, which also became the site of an expanding Jewish community. The Japanese occupied the town and the region then called Manchuria during 1932-1945. It’s easy to see what foreigners are more popular. One of the top sights is the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia, some street signs are written in Chinese, English and Cyrillic, and there are several Russian restaurants and souvenir shops. The Japanese have a museum detailing atrocious experiments on living human beings in the south of town.
Church of St Sophia.
Harbin’s Main Synagogue.
The Turkish Mosque, no longer in use.
Beautiful and pedestrian Zhongyang Dajie, lined with ice sculptures.
The favourite local snack.
Zhongyang Dajie by night.
Decorated Stalin Park.
Construction of an ice palace ongoing.
We were a bit nervous about Harbin after being warned countless times about how the temperature could drop to -40 degrees there in winter. Our wardrobe was not up for that, despite the addition of a winter jacket in Korea. However, we got lucky and I don’t think it ever got colder than -18 degrees. Cold can be fun and in Harbin, the frozen Songhua river becomes a massive ice skating rink. Neither one of us have skated for about ten years, but it was great giving it a new try, though jeez, my confidence on skates is not what it used to be.
Fun at Songhua river.
Whipping a cylinder-shaped swivel was a popular game on the ice.
Ice skating on Songhua river.
It was the cold that drew us to Harbin in the first place: The city organizes one of the world’s biggest ice and snow festivals. This year’s edition was massive, spectacular and colourful – and not as crowded as expected. It’s impressive to think of the work that goes into making large ice fortresses as well as the minute details of specific sculptures.
Harbin’s Ice and Snow World.
Detail of snow sculpture at Harbin’s Ice and Snow World.
Ice temple at Harbin’s Ice and Snow World.
Incense offering to deity at Harbin’s Ice and Snow World.
Harbin’s Ice and Snow World, complete with slide.
Harbin’s Ice and Snow World.
There are three main venues for the ice festival. The pictures above are from the Ice and Snow World, the biggest and most famous event. The large site was filled with palaces, temples and labyrinths made of ice and beautifully lit up, large ice slides and cafés and restaurants where you could thaw yourself in between. We also visited the much smaller Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park, focused on more detailed sculptures.
Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park.
Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park.
Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park.
Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park.
Meeting with Siberian tigers
Apart from the ice festival, we came to Harbin to see Siberian tigers, also called Amur tigers. After all that time spent in Russia’s Far East, this turned out to be our best chance to get a look at them. Siberian tigers are endangered and there are about 540 left in the wild, according to the WWF.
We visited the Siberian Tiger Park, which is said to have 800 tigers or more, of which you can see about 100. In hindsight, I wonder if it was a good idea. We got to see many impressive tigers very close up and a lot of them looked like they were in a good condition, roaming in large enclosures. But we also saw a lot of tigers kept in very small cages – I hope there is a rotating system making sure everyone gets time out in the open, but I can’t know that – and several other felines in equally small cages, seemingly thrown in at the end for good measure.
The safari-style tour in a minivan with thin, green bars in front of the windows got us out just a few meters away from the cats. After a while, a smaller black car showed up, from which staff threw live chicken for the tigers to catch. It was very popular in the minivan, but I can’t say it sat right with me. This had nothing to do with training tigers to catch live prey; it was a show for gaping tourists. I have since read some reports suggesting that the centre, like other similar ones, survives thanks to sales of pelts and tiger bone wine, in violation of Chinese law. I don’t know what the truth is, but writing this now makes me feel a bit ashamed of going and of us making such a beginner’s mistake of not researching better beforehand. No matter how good some of the views were.
Siberian tigers on the move.
Siberian tigers enjoying the sun.
A pile of tigers.
Chilling history of biological warfare at Unit 731
On our last day, we spent hours in local buses to visit the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base, also known as Unit 731, located in an unremarkable suburb south of Harbin. During Japan’s occupation of the area, general Shiro Ishii oversaw a wide range of horrifying experiments on humans – mainly Chinese, but also Russians and other nationalities – which they called maruta, meaning logs.
The staff carried out vivisection on subjects with or without anaesthesia to harvest organs unaffected by the decaying process. They tested how best to treat frostbite by leaving their victims outside, limbs exposed and periodically drenched with water. They cultivated bacteria – bubonic plague, anthrax, cholera, syphilis – infected the prisoners and studied the effects the diseases had on their bodies, with the aim of creating weapons. One example is the plague bombs, which they later test-dropped on some Chinese cities to see if they could create outbreaks. The tests were successful. There were gas chambers and pressure chambers and “field tests” where captives were tied to stakes before being exposed to mechanical, chemical or bacterial bombs. There are many other examples and gruesome stories about a place that claimed thousands of lives before it was destroyed by retreating Japanese at the end of the war. To make matters worse, the epilogue includes post-war silence, with all of the guilty escaping trial and many going on to make great careers, thanks to a deal in which the US gained knowledge for its own biological warfare program. Only a few of those working at Unit 731 have made public apologies.
The museum is housed in a new, dramatic and modern building, a metaphor for a black box from a plane crash. The content is clear and informative but not too graphic, despite the horrible topic. It’s the kind of place and the kind of story that makes you question the humanity in people. In a way (and isn’t there some irony in this?) it reminded me of the museums of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I kept looking closely at the faces of the staff on the photos, many of them young men and women. They looked so normal, not particularly evil at all. Did they all know what they were doing? Did they understand? Did it matter to them? And if it didn’t, when is it that you go from looking at another human to seeing a log?