14 July 2019

Inner Mongolia... Baotou, China!

Yes, Nèi Méng Gǔ! My summer holiday had finally arrived, packing my hand luggage and my sense of adventure I headed for Beijing Railway Station to reach my first Inner Mongolia destination! Baotou would be the first of three places visited in under 4 days, that included the overnight train from Beijing to Baotou. I was so ready to see another of China's autonomous regions!

Boarding my Z317 overnight train from Beijing Railway Station to Baotou was like a piece of cake! Reading those Chinese signs led me to my hard sleeper bottom bunk, it was a major relief not to repeat the same experience that I endured from Dandong to Beijing. Comfortable with much needed air conditioning being fed into the carriage and the motion of the train rocked me to sleep, don't snore otherwise you'll be reprimanded! My deepest apologises but such behaviour won't ever be tolerated! Waking up to views of Hohhot's rolling countryside impressed me much, at that point my train only had one hour till it reached my Baotou destination. The skies were looking mighty blue, checking my pollution APP revealed to me that no significant pollutants were in the air within that Inner Mongolian corner of China! My summer holiday had started, leaving the busy semester behind felt like heaven! Yes, yes BAO!

Meeting my tour guide Cherish was no problem at all, with my evening meal the previous night the only thing I had eaten up until then I was feeling pretty hungry, I needed breakfast! Heading across the road from Baotou Railway Station allowed me to grab something to eat before the days itinerary started. Heading to Baotou's Wudang Zhao Lamasery allowed me to see the unfolding beauty with my own eyes, the construction sites of the city melted away as the rolling lush green hilly scenery came into view, it felt like a different world compared with my corner of Beijing City. The air was fresh and the sky was the bluest that I had ever seen for a long time, well it was pollution free and no fierce winds were present, it was bliss. I was looking forward to seeing a place that reminded me of the Tibetan monasteries that I had seen in Lhasa. Baotou wasn't originally part of my tour, I opted to add the days excursions to my tour package for my Inner Mongolian summer experience. Baotou, go, go!

Now that we had found Baotou's Wudang Zhao Lamasery, I could be transported back to a piece of Tibetan beauty since leaving the heavenly city of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region. Living for the ultra blue skies during that mornings hour, catching glimpse of some buddha inspired boulders and stones that led to the lamasery's East  Mountain. The fluttering red, blue, white and yellow flags danced in the breeze as the Inner Mongolian sky allowed the clouds above to float by so effortlessly, I was loving that rare moment of calm and then some. As the monastery came into sight I had some amazing flashbacks to when I had the immense opportunity to explore Lhasa's Sera Monastery, those white washed walls and slanted Tibetan style pleased me to no end! My decision to enhance my China Highlights experience in Baotou was worth every Yuan spent! For certain, I felt a higher love for Tibetan Buddhism.

The rich interiors of the Lamasery allowed the memories of Tibet and the previous semester infuse, the latter had been settled. Lunch took a different angle, embracing the change it was a great chance to try some local cold noodles and some Inner Mongolian yoghurt. Both the noodles and the yoghurt tasted lovely, with such scorching temperatures it was a relief to have something chilled for lunch during the afternoons heat. More about those noodles, known as 'Liangpi' I really enjoyed their sesame taste. Back on the road towards the city once again, the views captured from all directions gave me a sense that I was not in Houshayu, Beijing anymore! Stepping out of the car to see some Tibetan Buddhist flags was really nice, seeing them fluttering in the breeze with the rolling green scenery as the backdrop. The peacefulness of the Lamasery and the lush surroundings had me feeling all kinds of goodness within China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Baotou had it all sorted!

If truth be told I wasn't sure what Baotou's Northern Weapon City was all about, with an open mind I was willing to find out for myself. At first glance I saw a gaggle of silver tourists who were arguing in Chinese that they qualified for the senior entry price, it was amusing to be able to understand what they were complaining about in Chinese. Informed by my tour advisor, this Baotou attraction was something of an outdoor showroom for old Chinese artillery, fighter jets and armoured vehicles that were either used before the People's Republic of China was created before October 1st, 1949. Taking a stroll around the grounds of the Northern Weapon City allowed me to see similarities with Pyongyang's Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum due to such items from combat that were on display, similarities all the same as Pyongyang's military back-catalogue hailed from a different time and combat. Next B!

The days sightseeing had almost concluded, before going to the hotel we stopped a what looked like a normal roundabout. I had done some pre-trip research to find that Baotou was the city of deers, scouting down that roundabout revealed the 'Deer Monument'. I had requested to see during my day in Baotou, for the reason it represented the meaning of the city. Content with the days offerings it was time to check-into the hotel, funnily enough we were all staying at the Baotou Hotel. I had booked this hotel independently on the grounds it was cheap for the one night spent in the city. Needless to say I was taken by surprise, the questionable quality of the hotel was below sub-standard but for one night I made the best of that low quality accommodation. My next hotel and Mongolian Yurt would prove better options for the remaining nights. It wasn't right but it was okay because the whole day had gone smoothly, from the train station pick to seeing the three places mentioned above.

Famous for its lamb, beef, milk and yoghurt, I wanted to try some local Inner Mongolian Chinese food during my one night stop in Baotou. After consulting my 'DianPing' Chinese style 'TripAdvisor' like APP, I had found a local chain restaurant called '西贝'. My chosen Baotou restaurant served me up a delightfully hearty serving of roasted lamb chops with onions and sliced potatoes. The sliced roast potatoes weren't part of the meal but with potatoes plentiful and cheap in China, I asked in Chinese if I could combine a third option for my first Inner Mongolian meat feast. The answer was 'yes', after waiting patiently for my food I enjoyed my lamb chops without a care in the world. Finished with my main course, it seemed only right to finish my evening meal with a chilled Inner Mongolian yoghurt. With my stomach satisfied it was time for me to be civilised for once, an early night would be on the cards for me. Not bad!

My restful nights sleep was very much needed! The overnight train from Beijing to Baotou was a cinch, things from there to the Wudang Zhao Lamasery progressed in a smooth fashion with only a slight alteration for lunch. Those chilled noodles and yoghurt helped the scorching temperatures and the used artillery at the Northern Weapon City interested me. The natural blue skies gave me life, with no pollution in air it was like breathing in new air into a new set of lungs. The hotel may have been sketchy but my early morning pursuit for a KFC breakfast the next day allowed me to see that outside the big smoke of Beijing, a passerby thought I looked lost as I unknowingly looked for share bike, the thought counted! Shantay, he could stay! Starbucks was playing games, not opening until 9am! Nobody has any time for that negativity! Regrouping the next morning before 8am allowed us to depart from Baotou for our next destination without any hitches. Why yes CN, Baotou served it all!

Boss Baotou!

Joseph Harrison 

23 June 2019

Guilin, China: Xingping's 20 RMB View & Yangshuo's West Street...

Guilin was surely the gift that kept on giving, the second visit to China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region has pushed for three blog posts! 2019s Dragon Boat Festival allowed me to see a series of fascinating places, concluding the itinerary the 20 RMB view was on the cards for sure! My night would be in and around the crazy, in the heart of Yangshuo colourful centre. Go!

Mother Nature really knows how to through a spanner in the works, during my Yangshuo tour she did just that! The Guilin area had witnessed some really heavy rains, causing the waters to rise. I was supposed to take a raft along the Yulong River but seeing things from my then platform was good enough for me. My tour guide tried his very best to keep track of the local rafting companies to see if they had lifted the ban, things weren't meant to be but he helped me take a great photo of the 20 RMB view. The flowing river, towering karst mountains and the mysterious clouds gave me a winning view. The crowds made me mad, like me they wanted their own memorable photo of that 20 RMB view. Some people really needed to chill their lives out, they were going to get their amazing money-shot without pushing, shoving or just taking their sweet time. Of course I didn't lose sight, getting my photo was crucial X! 

Nearing the end of the tour, I had really been looking forward to the final stop of the day. Xingping Village was buzzing during that late afternoon, with the holiday taking its full force the crowds were growing progressively larger. My tour guide had all the right ideas, paying no mind to the people we made our way to a wonderful spot that was in front of a make shift photo line. Asserting ourselves we were able to take that winning photo of the 20 RMB view. In that moment it felt amazing to have captured my third money shot referring to the Chinese currency, securing the Potala Palace for the 50 RMB note and Hangzhou 1 RMB note on West Lake. With the 20 RMB note my third, it's given the motivation to captures the Great Hall of The People in Tiananmen Square for the 100 RMB note. Xingping's magnificent landscape and fast-flowing river impressed me much. All in all, the struggle to the front to secure that outstanding photo was well worth it! Let's remember its just a photo in the end!

With the tour completed, it was time for me to check-into my Yangshuo hotel and to witness the bright lights. My hotel was located right in the heart of the noise, thankfully the hotel room was nice and quiet because nobody has got time for dawn alarm calls without any sleep! No! Saying goodbye to my tour guide, I would be meeting the driver the following morning to reach the airport for my Beijing bound flight. Walking into the lights and the noise of Yangshuo's buzzing town centre felt bizarre, from one angle I could see the rolling mountains and in the other the crowds of people roamed around. I had heard about West Street, a foreign themed street with international foods and quirky bars but that evenings entertainment for me was going to be slightly different. Only two days away from pay day, my finances were only going to cover dinner and a drink. Would the night would be a challenge for me or not? No way sister!

The day had been long and that McDonalds breakfast and questionable lunch had well worn off by the evening time, I wanted something hearty! Choosing the German style restaurant that had the most delicious looking menu was the one for me! Choosing the sausage platter wasn't a difficult decision for me to make, plus the beers were huge and ice cold! The price tag was reasonable for the portion and type of food and of course the location was another contributing factor, anyhow it was a holiday weekend! I sat back, relaxed with my beer to begin with, the view was filled with a street of busy restaurants who were all trying to tout for business. Before I knew it my monstrous portion arrived, now in China potatoes might be plentiful and cheap but when out for food its always a blessing to have mashed and boiled potatoes for tea! Mind the potatoes, I was living for the gravy all up on that sausage combination! In food heaven, so I wasn't going to pull any tricks or drink too much.

Throughout the whole trip I had kept things cute, not going over my limit with the local beer or any crazy spirits and for that it felt good. Walking along the busy party streets that surrounded Yangshuo's West Street proved to be entertaining for many different reasons. The music bars had gorgeous gentlemen singers, playing guitar and singing live very well but their looks and dashing dress sense had me all distracted. The dusk brought the bars to live with their bright lights and neon signage, it was a good job funds were low because I might've got thirsty, very thirsty indeed! Leaving those energetic streets behind, I found a shop that sold the local Guilin beer. Taking a seat along the pavement in a way that didn't make me look like I was homeless, I enjoyed my beer and people watching. People watched me right back, they either got a smile or a sour face depending on their first glance. No, no I wasn't in a salty mood.

I decided to call it a night pretty early on, I left the noise as it was becoming louder and louder. Yangshuo showcased itself to me in a very energetic way, I appreciated my opportunity to spend one night within the madness but one night was enough. The whole day had been a very long one, it was time to rest before my early morning drive to Guilin's Lianjiang International Airport for my flight back to Beijing. Waking before the sun had risen, I had a right game finding my way in the darkness of the early morning but thankfully I found the meeting point. The whole trip had been amazing, up until that point things had gone like clockwork. Arriving at the airport with enough time to clear security and reach the gate felt like an utter relief. Little did I know I would be very lucky to take-off at all, the heavens reopened after the previous days glorious sunshine, thankfully I arrived back into Beijing's Capital International Airport ahead of the schedule. Guilin/Yangshuo, it was amazing!

Yass Yangshuo!

Joseph Harrison 

21 June 2019

Guilin, China: Xianggong Hill, The Yulong River & Fuli Village...

Meeting my guide early, it was time to make the short journey to Yangshuo. I was looking forward to see the greener pastures of the rice paddies and the karst mountains. It was definitely a day to remember for all the right reasons, getting to see the 20 RMB note backdrop was out of this world! Concluding with one night in and amongst Yangshuo's buzzing tourist honey pot.

Being an already scenic city, so it didn't take a long time for the landscape to morph into a paradise like view. As my car approached Guilin's Xianggong Hill the vistas were do die for, the glistening morning sunshine gave the rice fields and karst mountains such a heavenly glow. Arriving at Xianggong Hill filled me with a feeling of trepidation, I don't do well with heights so I was really glad the tour guide was going to walk to the top with me. I braved the way up to the top, it wasn't that bad compared to how I imagined it would have been. The views from the top were outstanding, I felt as if I was in another world. The winding river looked amazing, the cloudy vista added a sense of mystery. As with many beauty spots in China, people were going berserk to get a snap of the vista from the top of Xianggong Hill. One individual believed they were better looking than the views, in response I took my own sweet time. No!

The views were outstanding, I won't ever forget those breathtaking sights. It had been a dream to visit Xianggong Hill to capture that iconic Guilin view. No matter how much money a trip costs, if I can see something that was so gorgeous makes every single penny of that price. I didn't spend much time at the top because the itinerary was quite full packed, the growing amount of people making their way to the top also influenced that decision. If truth be told the height wasn't too bad, I saw what I had wanted to see during that Xianggong Hill moment. I'll never forget that gorgeous encounter. Making the way back down didn't take long at all, with the air conditioning on full in the car it was a moment of relief because the sun was really started to beam down some serious heat! So far the morning had showcased some stellar views, with my informative tour guide the conversation was good. We made our way to the banks of the Yulong River in the heart of Guilin's Yangshuo County.

Arriving at the Secret Garden for lunch made me feel like I was in a very touristy environment, the prices certainly weren't local but the break from the hot weather was much needed. Timings were perfect, things continued ahead as planned. Hiring some bikes allowed myself and the tour guide to ride alongside the rice paddies and the fast moving Yulong River. The landscape was truly spectacular, it was amazing to see the rice paddies as I peddled past, to witness the farmers at work was one for the books! Stopping for a little breather, I managed to see a water buffalo cooling off in a pool of water. Sharing some photos and short videos with my students via the  class group allowed them to enjoy the experience with me and to learn some English during a holiday weekend! The bike ride was lovely, it gave me the chance to take a series of breathtaking photos. So, with that breeze I got burnt, but thankfully it's tanned now!

How was this trip compared with my initial Guilin tour experience that I took during 2016s Labor Day holiday weekend? Choosing China Highlights for the first time I experienced an amazing day seeing two extraordinary sights within the Longsheng Country within Guilin's vast city region. The Long-Haired Ladies in the Huangluo Village, with their Rapunzel-like nature they showcased their jet black shiny hair for a rather intrigued audience of people to witness. They didn't speak China's  Putong Hua (Mandarin) because they had their own minority language. Moving on from one spectacle to another I ticked off an amazing feat, I found the courage to walk round the sweeping and very steep rice terraces also in Longsheng County. The misty skies and the glistening water in the rice paddies served a very special and breathtaking view for me, recognising the 'leaping tiger' pose in the paddies I was speechless! For differing reasons both trips gave me magical moments all the same!

As amazing as the bike ride was, I did feel a little battered by the sun. Arriving in Fuli's Ancient Village allowed me to turn the hands of time back to a simpler period. Stopping at a local fan making workshop opened my eyes into the crafting of Chinese paper fans. Taking some time to see the work that went into making the fans astounded me, the process and attention that the husband and wife team applied to their trade was amazing to see. I was able to try my own hand at making a fan, it wasn't as beautiful compared with the original designs but the experience counted for something. It felt so organic to see the semi-circular paper designs that were drying outside the workshop. I saw the folding of the paper and the inserting of the wooden handles. I totally fell in love with the look of the cherry blossom painted fans, asking for the price I simply had to  spend! Yes, the whole lesson was worthwhile!

The feel of Fuli's ancient village alleys and side streets gave me life, the old workshops really gave me a sense as to how the local area survived with their trades. Most of all the fan workshop really impressed me, it gave me a sense deeper into Chinese culture and history. That fan will help me cool down during the summertime. The day so far had been memorable for all the right reasons, I was really feeling the heat though. From Xianggong Hill to the bike ride, the mornings and early afternoons activities really set the tone for the tour, it was serving everything as promised, money very well spent! The feeling was right, I was so right to choose to return to Guilin, everything was meant to be. If the truth must be told, this blog was going to be the final Guilin post covering my latest trip but with the sheer amount of things seen I need to make a third! I still need to cover my time at the 20 RMB view within the village of Xingping and the buzz of Yangshuo's West Street! Blessed!

Karst Mountain Realness!

Joseph Harrison 

13 June 2019

Back To The Beginning... Guilin, China!

Going back to Guilin felt like a natural thing, with every city that I revisit there's always a purpose for the visit. Arriving before my Yangshuo trip into Guilin's new Terminal 2 allowed me to see the progression had taken place in that Guangxi Zhuang City. Being back in a slow paced city gave me life, people didn't stare because backpackers were everywhere! Yes, G!

Sitting on the window ledge at the boarding area, I waited for my China Southern flight to find the boarding gate at Terminal 2 of Beijing's Capital International Airport. Clearing security and the rest of it was like second nature, the time before that I flew it was to DPRK's Pyongyang, things felt more chilled. A little late my flight pulled into the gate and connected to the jet-bridge, those frantic individuals didn't lose any time to line up! Not worrying about anything, I boarded at my own pace with the knowledge that I was on my back to Guilin after a three year hiatus. I had some seriously beautiful sights to see, no delayed flights would have be appreciated that afternoon! Yes, I was so good that time around because I ate before reaching the departure lounge, saving those pennies where necessary had to be done during that pre-pay day trip! Taking to the skies, I got talking to a Russian couple who were sitting next to me. 

Touching down fifteen minutes early into Guilin's LiangJiang International Airport was a relief, things were looking rather different compared with my 2016 arrival. Not paying any mind to those airport taxis, I took the bus from the airport to a city centre location. I was prepared to use Chinese because here in Beijing not a lot of people can speak foreign languages, to my surprise one of the airport workers approached me to ask if I required any help, I wasn't ready for that! As my airport bus made its way closer to Guilin's City centre, I recognised quite a lot from the streets with not many changes it was great to see a familiar place. Arriving at my destination wasn't difficult because this time around I had my iPhone with Apple Maps fired up, directing me over three intersections I found my hotel without any major hitches. As if my luck, those higher pavements smashed one of the wheels of my suitcase! My weekend was in full motion, it was time to relax before my Yangshuo tour. Go!

When in a new city it's always good to play a few old tricks, I'll leave those to your imaginations. Fresh on the street I took some time out with a local beer on the main street that was opposite Guilin Railway Station. Guilin's chilled vibe sorted me out, with each sip of that cold local beer, the insanity of my Beijing situation melted away. I wasn't tolerating any nonsense during that moment, don't even think about! The vibe of Guilin's City centre put me at ease, people weren't fazed by foreigners, that alone told me something that a possible move westwards wouldn't be a bad thing at all! The day so far had been textbook, nothing had gone pear-shaped. As dusk turned into evening it was lovely to see things looking the same but with a smattering of progression in the air, things were just nice in Guilin that evening. Third time won't happen but I was feeling accomplished how life had found me back in Guilin. Yes, blessed!

Planning my comeback trip to Guilin took a long time, not entirely but it was finding the right time to visit Yangshuo. I would have visited it during my first trip but time didn't permit that Yangshuo extension, I was going to have to wait for that 'ish! Contacting China Highlights once again, they advised me that during summer would be the best time to visit the Yangshuo area to get the best of the weather. Choosing the one day tour from Guilin was for me, choosing to stay in Yangshuo for the evening was made possible by the arrangement with China Highlights and Trippest. Paying my balance up, securing rooms and bagging flights within the right time period, the tour became a reality! The weather the previous day had been bad, rain had battered the region and forced rivers to rise. I was intoxicated by the chilled vibe by Guilin's calm city streets and the beer also helped quash any feelings of apprehension about the weather in Yangshuo. No, not lying Guilin sure had me in a trance!

So, as the evening approached it was almost time for to meet my tour advisor and new friend from China Highlights, Fiona. From the first trip that I had booked with CH, I have been in contact with Fiona. A lady who has helped me secure my previous China Highlights trips, making them a reality with amazing customer service and very convenient payment methods by using WeChat. Meeting on the same road that I was, her taxi was fast approaching to pick me up. After meeting we arrived at a famous duck hotpot restaurant, now I don't like hotpot but that duck extravaganza served us every part of the duck! To be honest, certain parts of the duck actually tasted really good! The conversation flowed and for certain parts about Beijing communication made me feel at ease, not everyone in this country has such a sour view towards foreigners. It was going to be one of those quieter evenings, that was all good for me.

Things had gone pretty well, things were about to change in old Guilin! Being Guilin, I was prepared for some serious rainfall, so when the heavens opened I was on the run for the hotel! Dodging that torrential downpour had to be done, I wasn't going to let that stop my sampling of local brews. The hour wasn't too late and their were plenty places that sold beer on the way back to my Green Tree Hotel, it was fine! Making it back to the hotel was a shear relief, the day had gone smooth, from taking off from Beijing to finally meeting Fiona in person. I was ready to recharge before the long day that faced me the next day. Guilin will forever be a city that stays as one of my firm favourites, it still possessed a city scenic feel and for that I entertained that Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region City for certain! I stick firm to my recent declaration, it was blessed to return for the second time but that's it! No shade, it's all love because this Middle Kingdom nation has soo much to see! Guilin, I love you!

Genuine Guilin

Joseph Harrison