Sunday, August 9, 2015


Before the thunder showers rolled in.
Danxia Geological Park, China


Post-rain

Rolling hills of Danxia Geological Park, China, upon which we took a languid stroll before the cops/guards megaphoned us down angrily.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


"It's best seen at sunset," they said.
"The colours are brightest after the rain," they said.
They were right.

Danxia Geological Park, China


Today I lived a dream.
When I realized a few months ago that what used to be my desktop background for years is a real life place in China that I can visit, I knew I had to go. So here I am. Zhangye Geological Park.
When we set out with a shared taxi (50¥ return trip, to/from our hostel) I could hardly contain my excitement. It was about an hour ride to the gate of the park (40¥ adult/20¥ student) from which a mandatory shuttle (20¥) took us to sites 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the geological park. I couldn’t help but gawk at the views from the shuttlebus itself until, alas, it started to rain… My heart dropped.
We arrived at site 1 to find groups of people shivering in the plummeting rain, pushing to get onto any shuttlebus to hide from the torrential downpour. We were soaked, shivering, smiling, but let down. There was no way we could walk on the clay ridges, and the rainbow colours seemed to wash away with the rain.
Thankfully, the shuttle busses aren’t signed in english and it’s impossible to tell which bus goes to which gate (north, east, west, and perhaps south?) without knowing the Chinese characters for either direction. We arrived at the north gate and realized that our taxi was in fact at the east one. The rain was so heavy that the shuttle busses wouldn’t go into the park again until it calmed, so we waited until finally the rain stopped altogether and blue sky appeared. The late afternoon sun glowed on the rainbow hills. My heart sighed relief. (I dropped Ryan’s android in utter admiration and cracked the screen.) No photoshop needed, the sunset brought out the natural colours of the hills so beautifully after their afternoon shower.
We got lucky.

Friday, August 7, 2015

18h train, standing ticket

We needed to get out of Beijing, for the sake of saving money and travel time, as soon as Ryan got back from his visa run in Hong Kong. I’d discovered that you can actually buy train tickets online instead of having to lug yourself to the train station or a ticket office with passports and an explanation written up in Chinese for the counter person to understand - it’s easier to do on a booking site, like ctrip, and I was able to book in this way with passport numbers and a credit card. Unfortunately, however, I found that the train we needed to catch (being one of the two heading westward to Xinjiang from Beijing) was completely booked up apart from standing tickets, which cost the same as a hard seat (approx 40CAD). I booked the 18h, crestfallen, although the confirmation cheekily stated that it was “hard seat.” Yeah, right. We got to the train station after a 2 hour sleep, half expecting a hard seat, and being gestured to by train staff that no, it was in fact standing. Shit. 10am, 18hours to go. We snagged a spot huddled by the carriage doors, having to rise every hour or so as the train stopped in order to let people get off and on and continuously fight, push, weasel our way to get our spot back. We were fortunate enough that no woman armed with multiple babies and big bags didn’t try to edge her way into it, or I certainly would’ve given it up. To say that the train was crowded is an understatement. The thing is, I’ve taken dilapidated trains in Myanmar, even some in Thailand, but never have I had to pay so much for a seat, or a standing ticket, for that matter. When a ticket costs you the equivalent of 3CAD or in the case of Myanmar sometimes a third of a dollar (for 12+h journeys), you can’t really complain about having to cram in a wooden seat or sleep in the restaurant carriage on the cockroach soaked floor. But for 200¥… Midday, a cup of noodles. 6pm, another cup of noodles. 3am, more noodles. Thank goodness for hot water on trains, but any more instant ramen and I’ll turn into a big noodle myself. All the passengers with standing tickets were lovely. We would take turns allowing for the other person to extend their legs, or for some men - who had sometimes been standing for hours, with no space to so much as squat, even - to crouch for a few hours and rest. A no smoking policy appears to be in effect on trains, but very much ignored. The space between carriages is, in most Chinese trains, the designated smoking area, and even though the conductor was adamant in reminding people not to light up, men would find their way over and try to have a cigarette nevertheless. I think that by nighttime the conductor had given up on yelling at people, while other passengers kept to smoking in the lavatories (making the wait for a wee unbearable). It was amazing how little of a crap some people gave about the conductors orders and the new rules. At one point, around midnight, we’d stopped at a station for a 10min leg stretch, and a group of men went off to buy beers. They tried to board the train but the conductor told them they couldn’t bring on their beers. They shrugged and boarded on the next carriage instead. The conductor sighed defeatedly. While the price of the standing ticket, being equivalent to that of a seat, is a bit steep, it may actually be a more comfortable way (if there can be a “comfortable” way to be on a train for 18hours) to ride. Once we’d established our half metre squared area, people were respectful and understanding of it and in turn we’d make room for others. Being on a train from 10am until 5am is brutal, but this time it was an interesting (and exhausting) experience as well. To bed!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Hot Pot chain: Pick out any and as much veg, herbs, tofu, noodle (and meat, if that’s your thing) as you like into a tray, pay by weight, and get it cooked up with flavouring of your choice. This one’s a sesame broth, and only cost me ¥15 - the equivalent of 3CAD for a big bowlful of fresh, flavourful leafy greens and mushroom. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this will cure what(ever the hell) ails me!

Buns for breakfast! Tsai baoze - veggie version

Sometimes, when you travel, you run out of Nescafé. There’s no black coffee to be found. You hate those 3-in-1 sachets. You’re a pissy person when you don’t get your daily dose of caffeine within an hour of waking up. You bike by a ritzy café district, and decide that if you don’t get a coffee now things may not end well for anyone you interact with. You gotta treat yourself to that espresso that costs half of what you’re paying for accommodation (and you’ll order a second one, inevitably). Oh, well.

Waiting outside a train station at midnight in the smog should be a bit terrifying anywhere in the world. Nope, not here though. China feels like the safest country in the world - or maybe every time I travel I just become more comfortable and trusting (you could say naive?) of a country and its people, who knows.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


View from my pillow

...what

After a debilitating weeklong illness and remaining confined to our room (albeit lovely room, plus ensuite -thank goodness) at Warriors Hostel, we decided that although we weren’t well enough to hop on another night train just yet, it was time for a change of scene. We had barely seen any of Xi'an anyway, and our wallets would appreciate the change of accommodation. So, this morning, Ryan’s tummy still funny and my head still fuzzy, we bid our goodbyes to the lovely staff at Warriors Hostel, our broken toilet seat, and the flowery panelled ceiling that we had stared at all week, lying immobile in that damn bed thinking up our own burials with terracotta warriors. For a “fresh start” in Xi'an we booked a room with Haoji Apartments, a family run business letting up rooms in standard apartments of local Chinese people in the outskirts of the city. We pedalled around asking anyone and everyone for directions (thank goodness for the directions in mandarin provided by booking.com), when finally a lady gestured for a young man on the street to walk us to the place. We wouldn’t have found it on our own. There is no signage in English, and the Chinese characters aren’t even visible from the main street. We entered, hesitantly, an apartment complex, led to the first building, and tentatively rode the elevator to the sixth floor, as specified on booking.com. I waited around for a while as some people crammed their motorbikes into the elevators. Finally, I made it to the sixth floor and found the “office” of the apartment rental, a small room with a computer desk, a bed, and a naked toddler playing on an android phone. We were led to our room, bikes as well (up the elevator, crammed in with all the other residents of the building), and made our grand entrance by breaking a glass table in our room within the first couple minutes of getting in. Heavily apologetic, the incident was brushed aside by the kind owners and the shattered glass was brushed off the floor. We insisted on paying for a replacement, in turn getting the Bing translation for “don’t take it to heart, no problem.” So here we are, in a room of an apartment, our bikes propped up against the extra bed, sharing the bathroom with neighbouring Chinese families, in a relatively run down condominium in Xi'an, a spa in the next room, and some offices on the floor above us. There are 3D pink flower stickers on the walls. Where are we? What is this place? This trip doesn’t stop getting ridiculous.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


A place to tread lightly, to speak softly, to listen to the cicadas hum and the birds chirp and forget about the outside world.

Pair of lovers

Many people told us to visit the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, that it would be worth it, that it’s the most beautiful, a must-see when in the Venice of the East. Unfortunately, however, we are still backpackers, and we couldn’t justify spending 90RMB (18CAD) to see a garden to which hoards of Chinese tourists flocked. The vibe wasn’t appropriate. Instead, we followed Goats on the Road’s advice and cycled over to the Couples' Retreat Garden a few streets away. Tucked away by a small canal, we knew this was a garden we’d have to visit, quieter than the others and much less costly. Standard entrance was 25RMB (and a half-off discount with my ISIC student card). Despite some groups of microphone-led tour groups, it was infinitely more peaceful than the other sites in Suzhou. We even spied some cheeky lovers hanging out in some of the more secluded areas of the property. Suzhou truly is a city of romance.

Couples' Retreat Garden