Wednesday, May 7, 2008

We have moved

You can now catch up with us on the Mother Country and the Continent by going to

See you there, C&D

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Great Wall of China and other delights

Today is our last day in Asia, 6 months has flown by! The last 10 days have been a whirlwind of spending, sightseeing, and sleeping (badly) on trains. We left Beijing for the quieter town of Pingyao - a World Heritage Site. The town is all grey brick buildings, old city walls, red lanterns, courtyards, and horsedrawn carts. We spent 2 days wandering the alleys and walls, investigating old banks, houses, and prisons and visiting temples. Below is a photo of the Retribution Room in the Temple of the City God. You have to figure out the others for yourselves as today we can put photos on the page but not edit their layout.

This was a diarama about 20 meters long depicting scenes of torture in hell covering having your tongue cut out, being sawn in half with a timber saw, genital mutilation... Enough to deter even the hardiest sceptic. Although perhaps not given the existence of the prison down the road with associated torture rooms there as well.

From Pingyao we took the train north to Datong, a dirty town with little to recommend it except for the nearby attractions. We visited the Hanging Monastery a 1500 year old wooden structure attached to a cliffside 50m above the ground. Built to appease river gods and prevent floods, it was filled with relics of Confucionism, Taoism and Buddhism (covering their bases). Deeply impressive and slightly rickety feeling.
Then onto the Yungang Caves which were AMAZING. Started in 460AD, it took 40,000 men 64 years to complete. Dedicated to Buddha, the caves were made as repentence by an emperor who had banned Buddhism for 7 years and killled nuns and monks. Then he became ill and realised the error of crossing the Buddha. In similar fashion to the Forbidden City, it was the scale combined with ridiculous detail that made this so impressive. Incredibly, the caves didn't come before the statues, they were dug out at the same time. Huge Buddhas up to 17m high were carved from the top down in solid rock before being opened out into a cave. The walls were detailed with millions of tiny carvings in a series of caves, 45 in total, and the smallest Buddha was 3cm.
We were agog.
Then back to Beijing to visit our most famous place yet - The Great Wall of China. We took a tour with our hostel which promised to take us to the "Secret Great Wall" where no other tourists would be. As we are "travellers" and not "tourists" this sounded right up our alley. The van ride was absolutely mad, with a crazed lunatic at the wheel over or undertaking anything regardless of corners, oncoming traffic or pedestrians. Along the way we were caught in traffic jams, where engines were turned off, at the more popular entries to the Wall. Arriving alive but perhaps not unharmed psychologicaly, we were dropped in the middle of nowhere with a small track leading off the side of the road - cf other Wall options where a cable car up is the norm.
After a walk through the blossoming fruit trees the Wall could be seen beckoning on the skyline. We reached a crumbling bit of it and mounted. Ghengis would have been proud to behold. What can you say? It was a long wall. But it was the Great Wall of China, so had a certain air about it. We walked along the ramparts for an hour or so, some crumblimg and steep, others in not bad nick considering. One particularly dedicated retailer drags his stock of drinks, food and nicknacks up here every day and is ensconsed in the highest watchtower, ready to pounce. We were duly impressed and can tick that off the list of things to do this lifetime.
Nova has just left us and we are preparing ourselves for the flight to London tomorrow. A little sad to be leaving Asia but it has also become pretty comfortable so we are ready for a change of scene. Saving money might be our greatest challenge in the Tour de Europe.
For the last time from Asia, C & D

Sunday, April 13, 2008


After spending a few days doing not much, Nova arrived and we have been into the sightseeing with a vengance. After a quick trip to the biggest airport terminal in the world we were off to our second preserved body of the trip - Mao. The Great Helmsman lies covered in a red hammer and sickle flag, looking very waxy. Not the same pomp as the Vietnamese experience which was surprising.

It was then off to where Mao is not and many argue he should be - underground. A huge underground city was built during the cold war to shelter from impending doom. Many dubious facts were bandied about by our guide, such as the tunnels being in total longer than the Great Wall, but nonetheless it was certainly massive. Not mentioned by the guide was that the road and rail tunnels are still in use and allow the pulitburo (if they call it that in China?) to move about in secret. Helen was not up to that level apparently as we saw her motorcade speeding through the middle of town.

Shopping was the next experience and we visited Silk Street, which is not a street but a mall filled with traders selling knockoffs for as much as they can get out of the tourist hordes. Very noisy with every stall you pass yelling at you to get you in the door, with calls such as "Hey handsome big man!" and "Looky looky pretty lady!". Grabing the arm was also a favourite tactic. Some major haggling was done and we walked away exhausted but with some worthy purchases among us, from silk (maybe) duvet covers, panda soft toys, jandals and a large string of 100 satin chilli peppers.

The next morning was the Forbidden City, so named as it was off limits to the hoi polloi for 500 years of imperial rule. It was teeming with tourists (mostly Chinese) but was truly staggering in terms of size and intricacy. It is a walled set of palaces, halls and gardens thousands of kilometers square but with every building honed down to the finest detail of ceramic, painted and cast iron decoration. We spent a good few hours and saw only a small amount of what was on offer. A favourite was the Hall of Clocks which contained clocks made by the imperial clock shop and others given as gifts from around the world. These were mechanical masterpieces, with one containing a model man who when the clock is running can write 8 Chinese characters with a caligraphy pen.

The rest of our time has largely been spent in the contrasting areas of Beijing - the tiny allyways of the traditional city dwellings called the Hutong, and the massive modern city of buildings that look like they are hewn from a single slab of granite the size of a mountain. Just back from a visit to the Olympic site where more massive buildings are growing by the second, including a hotel in the shape of the Olympic Flame and the 'Bird's Nest' stadium.

Off to Pingyao tomorrow for a change of scene.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Ayutthuya to Xinxiang by bike...

We are in Beijing! However not quite as hoped. A couple of days of disaster awaited us on leaving Xian that started with a pushing match in the train station and ended 2 days later in a hospital in Xinxiang, 6 days short of Beijing.

We had to take a train out of Xian as there was not enough time to make it all the way to Beijing by 10 April when Nova arrives, so we planned to head east and then bike the last 800km north. After trying 3 crowded windows at the train station I (D) found one that would take our bikes. It all seemed to be going well until my 'helper' assumed that I was too stupid to figure out 2 times 21 is not 121, even in Chinese. Having already forked over 100 yuan I demnded my change rather than giving up the extra 21 he was asking for, only to provoke him into shoving me around with 5 friends watching on. With our train waiting on the platform and being slightly outnumbered there was no option but to leave it.

On arrival in Zhengzhou, surprise, surprise, our bikes had not arrived. Of course that took an hour of protracted pointing, miming, and phrasebooking to figure out, and eventually it was said they would arrive late that night. The next morning the saga continued. The bikes had arrived but not exactly in one piece. A bar end had been ripped off C's bike showing that some pretty brutal handling techniques had been employed as it's likely you could hang your whole body weight off these without them budging. Part of the brake lever was also munted, a cable partially cut and various other issues. But they were rideable, so off we rode.

Took us 2 hours to find our way out of town. 2.1 million people, rollercoasters in the middle of town etc, so like trying to find you way out of Auckland with no city map and all the road signs in, well, Chinese. All day was hard finding our way and we never really knew where we were. Crossed the Yellow River on a 5km bridge that said no walking and no biking but said nothing of walking with a bike, so with this liberal interpretation we avoided eye contact with the guard and strode on past for an hours walk. Finally we found a road that seemed to go to where we wanted and we were charging along on smooth tarmac with a slight tail wind. Things were looking up.

By this stage of the day we had seen 4 crashes and one very drunk scooter driver. Unfortunately crash number 5 and drunk scooter driver number 2 came careening across the road and straight into Claud. Next instant she was sprawled on the road and the second pushing match began. The driver had the mental ability and uncanny resemblance to the outside of an overripe avocado - a fat mushy lump destined for a life of rotting in the trash. As the shock wore off Claud's arm was really sore and we had to walk our bikes to a hotel. A helpful woman on a scooter showed us the way while the avocado rode along as well, swerving over the road, coming to the odd skidding halt, and being generally exasperated with our lack of Chinese. Nobody seemed interested in getting the police involved and neither were we really as it was likely to be a multiday saga with little result.

After dumping our gear we headed for a hospital. The first directed us down the road to another, which Claud spotted with perhaps our best moment of Chinese charater recognition - 3 characters all recognised, backwards through a sign, at a distance. Quite a feat. A nurse spoke a little English and was very helpful, guiding us through the whole proess. Before any treatment could be given Claud needed a Chinese name to fill out the form. The doctor and nurse consulted and came up with Zhongxin, which is the first half of China and NZ combined. Not sure of the combined meaning but later a policeman assured us it was a "beautiful Chinese name". Hopefully he didn't leave out "for a boy". A doctor ordered an X-ray of the elbow region, which was done immediately with me acting as an arm support, so also getting a quick zapping. Back to the doctor and a "not broken " diagnosis. We were unable to get any real idea of what it might be, but if anyone has any ideas what a "small question" could be and how it should be treated, please let us know. Got some aerosol antiinflamitory prescribed and a sling for 3 weeks. The sling consists of a bandage and a magazine holding the arm. At least we have something to read while we wait for it to heal. Claud's arm was really sore for the rest of the day so not much sleep had.

Spent a day recovering in Xinxiang and went looking for the bus station. Got our second police assisted bus ticket. Asked directions to the station and in the end they said "we can do something helpful for you", and helpful it certainly was. It was a ride in the police car to the bus station and then one of them (who used to be an English teacher) bought our tickets for us. What would have taken us all afternoon was over in half an hour. Adam, if you are reading this, take note and see that you have some high standards to meet in your policing duties when you meet any lost Chinese. You should probably start mandarin lessons immediately.

A smooth 8 hours on a sleeper bus (lying down buses they have in Asia that put Intercity to shame) had us in Beijing. Claud's arm is still sling bound and sore but has certainly improved.

Pretty gutting to be cut down 6 days short by a drunken dickhead. But at least it was so far out of our control there is no feeling of failure having come so far already. Just a shame to miss out on the excitement of rolling into Tiananmen Square.

From here we have 5 days until Nova arrives for a 10 day visit. Then we are off to London (hopefully - no tickets yet) and onto more biking around Europe for the summer. Plenty more to see here with the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall and so on. No more photos yet as this computer does not have the facilities. Highlights would include Claud with cheery nurse doing peace sign.

Bye for now
D and Zhongxin

Friday, March 28, 2008

Of hills, smog, and exploding tires

Over the last 10 days we have gained another 1000km northwards, a hundred more saddle sores each and thighs with the girth of tree trunks. The ride out of Chengdu was hideous for the first couple of days. The pollution was at the highest level we have seen, so thick that visibility was only a couple of hundred meters and you could taste the grit in the air. We both felt ill from it and it is unimaginable that people can survive past the age of 10. Perhaps some have never seen the sun? The road was also shocking with mud, ruts, and huge trucks thundering around.

Thankfully after that things picked up immeasurably. Spring has sprung in China! The sun came out, the blossom bloomed and the road was lined with fields of yellow canola as we rolled up and down the hills heading north. The towns we come to are vastly different from the rest of our trip. In Laos, and even Thailand, there would be one road, a few basic shops and a guesthouse. In China we are hitting towns the size of Wellington every few days with malls, airports, 8 lane highways... No English though which keeps us on our toes, where we like to be when not on our bikes.

After a day off to recover from a particularly nasty 90km we started out on a section that required 400km in 3 days, followed by an 80km warm-down into Xian. The first day was over a decent hill and then down a big river valley. It was a perfect day for riding with warm temperatures and a slight downhill so we got through the 120km with enough energy left to explore the town at the end of the day.

The next day started out down the same river before heading into the mountains which we would spend the next 2 days getting across. All was going well and we were flying along in the morning before our momentum was halted as D's front tire exploded with a report not unlike that of the long nine on the good ship Hispaniola. Luckily I saw it coming so had stopped or things could have got messy. We attracted quite the crowd - 15 men and one rather concerned looking toddler who were very interested in the changing of the inner tube (and the swearing and flinging of the old tube that accompanied it).

After that the hills started and Foping was a welcome sight at the end of 150km. A 35km uphill greeted us the next morning, just to sap any remaining energy our legs may have had, so another slow 130km saw us finally over the mountains and onto the plains of Shanxi. The road was spectacular at times, with massive gorges descending from 2500m mountains to a cliff-lined and perfectly clear mountain stream at the bottom. The last gorge we followed like this was about 80km long.

A quick note here to publicly thank the Chinese engineers who built two very impressive and long (2km) tunnels halfway up the mountains on our longest days, saving us at least 2 hours riding a day - we could see the old roads crawling up over the tops and were very very glad not to have to bike them.

We have been constantly overwhelmed by the Chinese peoples' friendliness and desire to help us. On this leg we came out of our hotel one morning (where 5 staff had helped us to our room the night before and demonstrated all the facilities, including how to turn on the taps) to find our bikes had been given a quick clean overnight. In another town we were looking a bit lost so a woman approached us and said she would like to be our guide. She was an English teacher and escorted us to the supermarket, at which point she was off with a cheery goodbye. We had heard so many stories before arriving that people were ignored at hotels and treated pretty gruffly. So far we have experienced nothing but the opposite.

Off to the Terracotta Warriors tomorrow, then onto our last 800km push to Beijing (which we have to do in 8 days so we can get there in time to meet Nova!).

More photos: