Thursday, 29 September 2011

Croatia day 3

I spent all day on a coach. 

Well, not quite. This morning I walked up Marjan Hill for the view over Split. It was a beautiful view, and fully worth the sun-headache that plagued me the rest of the day. Note to self, never travel without hat again. My coach to Zagreb left at 11.30, arrived at 5 so relatively long day. I had a book, but oh boy did I miss my ipod - another mental note to get it fixed. I made sure I was fully provisioned from a market in Split before getting onboard. I got apples from a blind granny with knobbly hands, bananas and satsumas from an old guy with no English who was unbelievably chatty nontheless and wanted to know about my hand, and pastries from a 24hr bakery. 

I saw the fringes of Krka National Park from the window and we paused at a service station by the lower reaches of the river that runs through it. That's something else to come back to - the pictures of the Krka waterfalls look amazing. 

I was tired out by the time I got to Zagreb, but I needed to get some dinner so I hopped on a tram into the centre of town (my hostel, Hostel Lika, being rather our of the centre). I got off at the main square (Trg bana Josipa Jelačića) and was immediately drawn into watching "Leopard Man" doing a street show, the climax of which was a handstand on tiny chair 3m off ground, followed by fire juggling up there too. Oh those crazy Aussies...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Croatia day 2

I booked yesterday for a tour to the Blue Grotto so, thinking I was safely sorted, I ate breakfast in bed then sauntered round bay getting a couple of pics and paddling a little, until 9 when Mario at Navigator said to arrive... only to be told no-one else wanted to go so it was cancelled. Argh! By now it was too late to go round other operators (they leave Vis Town at 9) my only option was to hire transport to get to Komiza under my own steam and book from there with Altera Natura whose tour picks up strays in my position by leaving half an hour later than everyone else. The island's only bus coincides with the arrival (twice daily) of the ferry, so (since i've never driven a scooter before) I was offered a convertible for the whole day for what'd normally buy you 3 hours. Either Mario likes me or it's the end of the season. Probably a bit of both.

Even though it sent my budget spinning wildly off kilter, I couldn't pass up the chance to see the Blue Grotto as it's one of the reasons I wanted to go to Croatia, and if I didn't go I'd've effectively wasted time and money coming to vis. It was my first time a)driving abroad b)driving a right hand drive c)driving a convertible, but other than having to sprint back into the office to discover the trick of putting the thing into reverse (VERY embarrassing) everything went swimmingly. Time being of the essence first thing, I headed straight on over the top of the island - planning to meander along the south coast's beaches later on. 

I arrived in enough time explore Komiza - it's much smaller and more chilled than Vis, which feels (by comparison) like a show town. Exploring doesn't take long - walking round the bay from the tower (where I parked) took all of ten minutes, and I found Alter Natura right at the other end of it. The lady told me where to catch the boat ("You'll know captain - he has beard.") and I set out to fill the time with a more in depth look at the town... taking all of twenty minutes, including stops to buy and write postcards.

On the boat I met Lucy and Darren, a couple about my age from Manchester, as well as group of three middle aged Croats who didn't speak any English. The ride from Vis to Bisevo took about 45 minutes. Under the thrum of the engine and the slap and hiss of waves in the wake, was a noise faintly resembling the sound of the TARDIS landing... certainly the sea was a deep, clear time-travel blue. On Bisevo, we tied up to another boat, got off to buy tickets and transfer to a dinghy to get into the Grotto itself. Five minutes later, bypassing some perilous looking rocks and some cliffs I was aching to boulder across, we reached the Blue Grotto. The entrance is intimidatingly tiny - it barely looks like a boat will get through, never mind the heads of passengers, and is guarded by a bored looking man bobbing about in a boat attatched to a line. 

Inside it was magical; fully and completely worth the time, effort and expense of getting to see it - I just wish I'd been able to swim in there, that would've been special. Two things prevented me - the expressed orders of my surgeon five days previously being at the forefront of my mind, and the captain's obvious desire to get us round and out. I think they're all sick of tourists by this point of the year. 

Back to Bisevo for a Fanta and, chatting with Lucy and Darren, I made a quick change to my plan of action. They'd stayed the night in Komiza, having caught the morning ferry the day before and were heading back on that afternoon's car ferry. I decided to do the same, having done the only thing I really wanted to do on Vis. I offered them a lift in my car; they offered my their bus fare. 

I packed up at my guesthouse, got my refund and ate a picnic lunch in the shade of palm trees by the harbour until the Jadrolinijia ferry office opened again after siesta. I scoured the Lonely Planet for inspiration whilst doing so to try and get my budget back on the straight and narrow, and regretfully decided that Zadar is going to have to wait for another trip, as I want to do Plitvice National Park almost more than life itself, and that's not going to be the cheapest of daytrips. We caught the car ferry back to Split, I said goodbye to Lucy and Darren before installing myself at Hostel Split (80HRK/night). I made tortellini for dinner, to save eating out and had a beer whilst wandering to the bus/train station to investigate prices to Zagreb. 114HRK was the cheapest bus I found, and as the overnight train was only 10HRK cheaper for a seat (not a berth) I decided to go for that.

Decision made, I made the most of my evening in Split by sitting and listening to an accoustic guitar set in main square of Diocletian's Palace then wandering round to soak up the ambience and to see the place at night. Back at the hostel I took advantage of the in-dorm computer to assure Mother I was alive, then collapsed into bed.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Croatia day 1

One of the prices you pay for a £30 flight is a 4.30 a.m. alarm. *Bleugh*. Fortunately, my friend Hannah lives within striking distance of Stanstead, so a price I didn't have to pay was bus or taxi fare. (Though I did buy her a thank you dinner.)

The sky over London was so foggy it looked like it was being propped up by street lights but I was headed for Croatia - the forecast for Split was 27C and sunny. I was still half asleep when Hannah dropped me off at the airport, but by the time I'd negotiated security (congratulating myself on travelling with handluggage only, printing my boarding card at home and not paying for speedy boarding as my flight was half empty) I'd woken up enough to start being excited. A week in Croatia, with the challenge of sticking to a £250 budget, what could be better?

We landed at 9.50am local time, and within twenty minutes I was on the bus into central Split Harbor, half an hour later and I was there. The seafront at Split is a sort of backwards 'L' shape; the arm where the big car ferries and cruise liners dock (also where the train and coach station is) is busy and functional as you'd expect. Turn the corner along the other arm of the L and it's busy and beautiful instead. Split's main attraction is the heart of the old town, Diocletian's Palace. The Roman emporer built his retirement palace (and, unusually, was able to enjoy it for a while) right on the seafront and rather than the stones being looted for other buildings, when imperial powers moved out the town moved in and the Palace is filled with life. People live, work, stay, eat, drink, party and wander around the narrow stone alleys.  

I hadn't booked any accomodation in Split because I wanted to see a natural phenomenom called the Blue Grotto which you can only get to from an island called Vis - but I wasn't sure if there'd be an economical daytrip from Split as Vis is comparatively pricey to stay on. I couldn't see anyone offering the trip, so I resigned myself and bought a ticket to Vis from the Jadrolinjia Ferry kiosk by the head of the waterfront promenade (the Riva) - 50HRK for the catamaran. It was 11.30 by this point - the boat was due to leave at 3.15. I donned my shades, reapplied suncream and set out to do Diocletian's Palace. Thank goodness for handluggage only!

The Palace isn't huge, but there are plenty of alleys and squares to nose around and lose yourself in. I found the statue of Gregor of Nin by the northern gate, rubbed his shiny toe for luck, and dived into the Palace again. I wandered west, and emerged by a fish market. Gargoyles on the corner of a building were covering their ears and looking horrifed - perhaps unsurprisingly as the stall holders were vociferously brandishing their tubs at innocent passersby and (I can only assume) encouraging them to buy the last of the catch. 

Intermingled with this babel was the melodic strains of a male-voice choir coming from the direction of the Riva. Sirens? I wondered, following the sounds southwards along the sunny street towards the waterfront. Well, sirens I got... in a fashion, anyway. Alas, it wasn't sexy fish-men; it was the Croatian Police, singing the National anthem. I was about to walk away, when they dropped "Final Countdown" over the soundsystem and started demonstrating how they go about fighting crime in Split - judo stylee. I stopped taking them seriously when they started punching and kicking chopping boards in time with "Eye of the Tiger." 

Afterwards I basked in the sun, a light sea breeze cooling my face and wafting the scents of salt and lavendar from the market stalls along the way and gave some thought to my next moves until the ferry arrived.

I got a window seat on the catamaran ferry. It took about an hour and a half to get to our first stop (Hvar Island) where we docked in a beautiful looking town that nestled right between yachts and hills. Definitely a place I'd like to go back to on another trip, preferably on a little yacht with a floaty dress and a tan for some cocktails. That was definitely the vibe. It was another 45mins (ish) to get to Vis Town. 

I was nervous getting off the ferry since I didn't have anywhere to stay booked, and the sun was setting. I don't like not knowing where I'm going to sleep arriving somewhere at night. There are two towns on Vis Island, Vis Town and Komiza. The ferry docks in Vis Town, the boat to the Blue Grotto is from Komiza. The island's bus across to Komiza meets the ferry, and that's it. I had a bit of a dilemma (Vis vs Komiza) but I didn't want to run the risk of getting to Komiza and not finding anywhere to stay so when I got off the boat, I went straight to Navigator travel agency. It was recommended in the Lonely Planet and it was right in front of my face, good enough. Mario found me a single room, with a shared bathroom for 150HRK/night, and they did a trip to Blue Grotto for 200HRK. I went for both. My landlady for the night was very nice, the room was old fashioned but spotless (as was the bathroom) and as soon as I was settled I went for a wander around the bay until hunger hit me.

I headed back to the main riva and had dinner outside the Hotel Tamaris restaurant. Red wine for 8 kuna, YES PLEASE. The food was good and the staff were friendly; at the end of the season, I was the only diner. I'd had a small operation on my hand the week beforehand, and I was still all bandaged up so when the waitress saw my hand she offered to cut up my chicken. I declined politely but got chatting with her and the other waiter. All kinds of useful snippets came out of our chat; there was only icecream for pudding as it's the end of the season, in September you can hire an 8berth yacht for around 120euro pp for a week, Vis has healing waters, and (most specialist insight) September is the best month for weed on the island. Good to know?! I must've looked slightly stunned but we laughed it off. 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Bye Bye Beijing

Well, I'm back in the UK. I've been home for a week and a day - my goodness is it strange to be back! It's a decision I was brewing over for some time, and it wasn't an easy one to make. However, I always knew I wanted to leave while there were things (and people) I would miss, and there are plenty of both. I've had an amazing year, some fantastic experiences, been through the rollercoaster of highs and lows and I'm ready for a new challenge. London calling... or something like that.

My last few days in China were a frenzy of getting things done - particularly some travel writing I was commissioned to do for I wrote tours to The Summer Palace and Kunming Lake, The Olympic Park, the Lama temple and Nanluoguxiang hutong and to the Great Wall at Badaling. It was a really interesting experience, visiting somewhere and keeping a specific eye out for what tourists need to know and how to go about doing stuff then marrying it up with a)interesting information to make people want to go the places I'm writing about, and b)formatting in line with the website's. Also, and I hope this isn't a developing theme for when I visit somewhere/ something I'm intending to write about, it rained heavily on every occasion. Nice.

I spent my last day in Beijing doing some of the challenges that were suggested to me by some good buddies over dinner on my penultimate night. I went to Jinshan Park behind the Forbidden City for a view over the whole of Beijing, visited the Pearl Market and ate scorpions on Wangfujing (three touristy things I'd missed out on thus far) - I didn't quite manage everything on the list, but heyho it's a reason to go back. Scorpions, in case you're wondering, just taste of deep-fried spicy crunch. The Pearl Market was super cheap and pretty calm compared to other markets in China, but the bustle of the Silk Market is more fun. The view from the hilltop pavilion that is the raison d'etre of Jinshan Park was lost in the filth of a muggy Beijing pollution day - a far cry from the blue skies, breeze and wafting floral scents of my parent's garden where I'm writing this. However, this is Derby and that was Beijing so I guess it's swings and roundabouts.

After a last dinner with some more friends, and finishing off packing (everything, including souvenirs, fit into the bags I came out with - how proud am I?) I got a ride to the airport for my flight home, again in the pouring rain. I flew with Aerosvit, a Ukraininan airline, changing at Kiev. I'm not sure what I did, but somehow I got upgraded to Business on the flight from Beijing to Kiev and had three seats to myself so I could stretch out and sleep. It must've been the Indiana Jones t-shirt... or me being polite in an empty airport at 3am, or the ridiculously early flight time. Whatever it was, it meant I arrived reasonably fresh faced for the transfer and got over any remaining jetlag pretty quickly. I always knew I liked the Ukraine...

Mum and Dad met me at the airport with a pork pie, apple juice and the wherewithall for ham sandwiches - maybe not a triumphant return to my homeland, but oh boy it was homely. So, what now for me? Well, first conquering action is to get a job. After that the top 3 things on my list are 1) save money for clearing debts and a big trip somewhere down the line, 2) carry on writing and get published somewhere in the UK, and 3) get some skills to make me an uber employable prospect (not to detract from my current level of *hopefully* super employable what with all my transferable skills and life experience...) - a fluent second language would be handy, some website creation/design skills and maybe something a bit left field like massage are all in my sightlines. One thing's for sure, the last year has made its mark and my horizons have been irrevocably broadened and (as you've heard me say so often) "I've got a Plan." Watch this space. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Hiking the Li River - Yangdi to Xingping

I haven’t hiked properly ever, but my Dad is a big fan of long walks, so for his birthday I hiked with him along the Li River from Yangdi to Xingping - all 20km of it! We got up earlyish and headed to Yangshuo bus station, just off Die Cui Lu, to catch one of the many daily buses up and down the river. We’d taken the precaution of having the characters for “Yangdi” and “Yangshuo” written down, as well as having my phrasebook in our well stocked backpack (water, dry towel clothes, fruit pastilles, cameras, money and waterproofs – all the essentials) but over each parked bus were signs for where each bus was heading and my Chinese was good enough to ask if this was the right bus (score!) and we were fine. Dad and I got seats with our knees up by our chins over one wheel arch – the last two seats that were actually seats – and off we trundled. You pay for tickets on the bus once it sets off, and two tickets from Yangshuo to Yangdi set us back the almost unbelievably low sum of 18RMB for two; less than the price of a Starbucks coffee.

The journey took about two hours, winding through the town and its outskirts then fields, rice paddies, villages and the spectacular karst mountains that were shrouded in cloud at the top. The bus gradually filled up as we drove along, the lady who got on with a bunch of leeks in one hand and a live chicken in the other was the last to get a seat – perched on the edge of a study wooden box with a piece of newspaper under the chicken in case it disgraced itself. A couple of stops after that, when the bus was essentially full, we managed to cram on another twelve or so people who all seemed to have their faces in each other’s armpits. Cosy wasn’t the word, but at least it wasn’t a hot day; that could’ve been uncomfortable!

The dock at Yangdi, looking south
We were sat in front of a German couple who were doing the same hike as us. When we arrived at Yangdi, we lost them for a little while in amongst the tiny old lady-hawkers offering bags of peanuts, mangy looking kumquats and the interrogative calls of “Hello? Hello, bamboo?!”  from everyone in sight but it wasn’t long until we bumped into them trying to get across the river too and agreed to join forces. The Li trail crosses the river three times – the official ferries cost 4RMB per ticket, but unfortunately, the first ferry was out of action when we arrived and we were all at the mercy of the local bamboo rafters who were quite happy to charge a premium. Dad and I got separated from the Germans and were tailed for fully forty-five minutes by one particularly irritating tout who appeared and interrupted whenever I was asking a different rafter to take us across the way. He managed, every single time, to dissuade them from helping us which was hugely frustrating. Eventually we caved and, along with two American guys, paid him 40RMB (for the four of us) to motor us across. The Germans managed somehow to get across first.

The first part of the trail that we followed at first cut through a small farm before descending to a sort of meadow beside the river then back up and away through the trees, but it varied hugely along the route from cobbled pavement to a concrete embankment literally along the edge of the river to Dad and I scrambling over muddy banks (though I think we weren’t on the proper path at that point.) I think because we didn’t go on the official ferry, we started in a slightly funny place, but heyho it didn’t matter – we could see the river and that was the point. We caught up to the Germans, who had waited to cross the river with us and the six of us were punted over the river by a somewhat sceptical rafter who didn’t like the idea of 7 adults on his bamboo raft, and carried on walking. After about half an hour, we heard an ominous rumble. The sky was black above us and we all scrambled into waterproofs before continuing – just as well because before we’d gone ten paces (pretty much) the heavens opened and I experienced my first monsoon. The rain was so heavy that the others decided to shelter for a while and have a break for lunch – Dad and I pressed on. The Yorkshire-man’s logic here was that we’d get cold as well as wet if we stopped, and we’d still have 15 clicks to tramp, so, on we went. I’ve never seen rain like it! It lasted at least two hours and walking through it was one of those surprisingly exhilarating feelings – sort of sublime, seeing the power of nature in an already indescribably magnificent setting, but also definitely ridiculous; what the sheltering natives thought of bedraggled me tramping along looking like a drowned rat and Dad in his blue poncho, bushman’s hat and brogues as we passed, I do not know.

One definite bonus of the downpour is that it stopped the droning succession of motorised bamboo rafts (and larger boats) that follow each-other up and down the river like a watery motorway. When you look at the back of the 20RMB note, or any other pictures of the karst landscape along the Li River, and go “wow!” you don’t imagine seeing it with the constant thrum of outboard motors as your soundtrack. I’ve lived in China long enough now that I really ought to have expected the hawkers and the calls of “hello? Hello, bamboo?!” that followed us along the river, but I didn’t. Silly me. I definitely didn’t realise how much of an alien concept the idea of hiking along the river was; apparently no-one could get their head around the idea, hence the “hello, bamboo?!” calls that followed us as ubiquitously as the outboard motors.

The day cleared up after a while and walking was pleasant. We didn’t bother to stop for food anywhere, except for me buying a very disappointing pomello and a couple of teeny fish on a stick from a couple of smiley and toothless farmers by the side of the path – fortunately we had the somewhat damp tube of sweets in the backpack for an energy fix. The fruit pastilles were lucky to get away with just dampness, we discovered just how not-waterproof the backpack was on the last river crossing - Dad wrung out the towel and my “dry” shirt, but there was no hope for his poor sandals!

The route that we took stuck closely to the river the whole way down. Although the trail isn’t exactly marked and we were kind of following our noses, it didn’t matter particularly – the route is pretty obvious and we saw plenty of other foreigners on and off. We also saw plenty of mountains, boats and river scenery (thoroughly gorgeous) but not as much rural life or farming as I’d half thought we might. Just as we were coming to the end of the hike though, an old lady led a water buffalo (I think) down to the river. Not knowing anything about the habits of buffalo, I was just expecting it to have a drink but it carried straight on into the water, turned around to face us and settled in to wallow. I swear it scowled at the Chinese guy snapping pictures next to me. Its owner squatted down on the water’s edge to await its convenience, and since it showed every sign of being in for the duration, we pressed on again.

After a last half hour or so, we arrived in the charming tourist trap that is Xingping… to find the German couple and the Americans had already arrived. We hadn’t seen them since we marched off into the rain, so I’m fairly sure witchcraft was involved and was tired enough that I said so! I asked the way to the bus station (Chinese lessons finally paying off) and we wended our way through the traditional houses and souvenir stands to the bus station and managed to get the last couple of seats and some standing room on the bus back to Yangshuo. The Americans, who were standing, had to keep ducking down to the floor to pass police checks, but apart from that the journey back was without incident. The whole hike took about 5 hours. I was thoroughly worn but mostly dry again by the end of the day, and I’m so glad I did it – Happy Birthday Dad.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Wilsons vs China part 2: trains and trees

a view across Mongolia from the Trans-Mongolian express
I have a bit of a confession; I like trains. Not in a count-the-numberplate, anorak wearing kind of way – more in the ‘relax, slow down, look out the windows and see life’ kind of way. I did seven straight days on the Trans-Mongolian express (sorry - I've just realised that post doesn't have any pictures) coming to China in August 2010, I interrailed around Europe July-September 2009 and most recently I took my parents on a 24hr ride down to Guilin from Beijing.

Flying around China is undoubtedly the quickest way to get around, it’s not too expensive either, but, if you’re in a hurry to relax then your holiday is oxymoronic to start with. That’s my feeling anyway. You see life out the windows of a train. You slow down because you have to. Having control (and internet) taken away from you for twenty-four hours can be something of a shock to the system, but oh boy does it take you away from the usual routine of city living. Chinese trains are unlike anything back home – at any one time more than a million people are said to be using the railways, there are several different classes of trains and classes of seat within those trains. You can only book your tickets ten days in advance, and you have to do it in person either at an agency or at the station.

Beijing West Station
The first time I got on a train in China, I was heading to Handan to start teaching. We had hard seats, all our luggage and the train was so crammed you literally had to climb on people to move down the carriage. A tiny woman bullied people out of our seats and fed us boiled eggs; a lady sat opposite didn’t realise how desperate her baby was until the poor child literally exploded all over her lap. I took Mum and Dad soft sleeper; there’s such a thing as a cultural experience taken too far. Both journeys, incidentally, started from Beijing’s West Station – a gigantic transport hub to which the subway (somewhat inexplicably) doesn’t go yet.

We had a Chinese lady sharing with us overnight, but her stop was midmorning so we didn’t see much of her. With my halting Mandarin I managed to tell her we’re English, that I live in Beijing and that we’re going to Guilin. I didn’t understand a word she said to me, except that she has sisters. This meant we had a four-berth, rattling box of China pretty much to ourselves for twenty four hours and were free to question and comment and guess about what we saw out the windows.

My parents are keen gardeners, so their point of comparison was the wildlife and agriculture we passed through. The interesting thing from our point of view was that all the farms seemed to be at subsistence level, none of the giant farming conglomerates you see at home or in the States as far as we were aware. For a place as huge as China, this must (we thought) keep life at a very local level. I’ve subsequently done a bit of research into Chinese agriculture – not much mind you – and we were close to being right! Sort of anyway.

farmland around Yangshuo
Around 300million people are employed in the agricultural sector, which (at one estimate) contributes to 12% of China’s GDP. China doesn’t have that much viable arable land in percentage terms, but 75% of all crops grown are food crops. We hadn’t factored history into our thinking, or at least, I hadn’t. (Maybe Mum and Dad did and I slept through it.) China and agriculture had something of a fraught relationship in the 20th century. Before the Cultural Revolution, the country was a feudal state with the kind of peasant farming that goes with it. After the devastation caused by the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958, which I really don’t know enough about to be able to explain properly (hence the link), farms and farmland began to be re-distributed back to small holdings in the 1960’s. The rest of the century seems to have been a long exercise in cleaning up the mess left by unfettered idealism. This meant we did get to see the stereotypical rice paddy farming, complete with water buffalo and lamp-shade hats though.
We also saw plenty of trees that were similar but not quite the same and flowers that they’ve got in the garden back home. This was more noticeable when we got off the train and were walking past nicely done herbaceous borders, but set us thinking about the links between gardens and open spaces and how they’re universally important to people. Again, this set me off on a bit of research, mainly from reading Bill Bryson’s "At Home" it has to be said, about plant hunters and the fortunes that were made taking new species of plants back to England to be cultivated. While I was doing this, I found out about Robert Fortune who went undercover to steal the secrets of tea growing from China in the mid 19th century.

I’ve always known that history is fascinating stuff – what I hadn’t quite comprehended was how much plants feature in it and how much you can learn about a place from who grows what and why. It does tempt me to go to Xi’an to the 2011 Horticultural Expo. The theme this year is “Continuous Harmony between Heaven, People, and Nature” I assume this grandiose title actually intends to explore the links between people worldwide, gardens and culture in a wider sense. I have to admit, I’m intrigued… maybe that’ll be my next trip out of Beijing? 

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Children's Day

China might be perceived as a land of “little emperors” thanks to the one-child policy, a place where children are extremely cherished, but the attitudes to disabilities here are…erm… old fashioned to put it politely. On a day like today, it’s good to know that there are organizations like Bethel in the world working for the good of disadvantaged children to make sure they have some childhood memories as happy as the ones I've just mentioned!

To quote from their website: “Bethel is a not-for-profit organization that provides foster care, education and professional training for Chinese orphans who are blind or visually impaired.” There are two projects, “The Love is Blind project” (located in the couth of Beijing) and “Project 5+5+5” which works around the country to train state-run orphanage workers. You can check out more about their work (and how you can support it) here, and I hope you do!
some of the kids who live at Bethel's "The Love is Blind Project" in the south of Beijing