China Part 4: Xi’an

We arrived in Xi’an after only a 2 hour delay – these delays are the norm it turns out for domestic flights in China. While in Shanghai, Kuang’s Mum had mentioned in passing that she had a good friend in Xi’an, who would like to meet up with us when we got there. Great! Always a good thing to meet a local, get some information on the area, have the regional favourite food from the best restaurant, and best of all, steered away from the Lonely Planet route!

We arrived to find a guy waiting patiently with a name board for us. This was Mr Wong, and he was Kuang’s mum’s employee’s father’s subordinate, and he had been given the great honor of showing us Xi’an. Not entirely sure what we were getting into, we followed him to his van, hopped in, and headed into the city. First stop was at a chain diner, with a similar feel to McDonald’s, but with Xi’an delicacies instead of hamburgers. Here we were introduced to what translates directly as ‘cold-skin noodles’. Thick and chunky noodles are stirred with a slightly spicy sauce, and served cold – and it was delicious.

After our late lunch, we were taken to the Xi’an International Horticulture Expo, the new pride of the city. In a rush and a roar, we were bundled onto a golf cart and whisked off into the park. This was no ordinary horticulture expo. In fact, it was a tad hard spotting the horticulture bits. There were statues, replica villages, animal enclosures, grand replica buildings… oh, and some plants too. By far the most impressive sight was the technological creativity show – a walk through exhibition of some of the cutting edge technology in the world, including robotics, hydroponic systems, and some good ol’ fashioned genetically modified roses, with variations such as gold and rainbow petals.

Replica Pagoda, International Horticulture Expo, Xi’an

Rainbow Roses, International Horticulture Expo, Xi’an

Plant Sculptures, International Horticulture Expo, Xi’an

International Horticulture Expo, Xi’an

From there we were taken around to more stands. The animal enclosures were extremely depressing; coming straight from Chengdu, we had seen healthy and happy pandas – these pandas were nothing like that.

Pandas, International Horticulture Expo, Xi’an

After scooting around the huge park, we were quickly ushered off the cart, and bundled back into the van. From there we were taken to our accommodation, and were able to settle in for a bit. Not for long, however, as we were soon picked up again and taken to dinner, there to dine with Kuang’s Mum’s employee’s father. Taken to a restaurant that boasted a long history (I’ve since lost the name of the place – I will try find it and update here). Like in Shanghai, we were treated to a multi dish extravaganza, but the key dish of the night was the Yangrou Paomo, an interactive dish where you are given a piece of flat bread, which you break into small pieces. You then select your soup, and the next moment, you have a soup with… small pieces of bread in it. While it seemed rather peculiar, we were assured it had a long history, back to one of the eminent figures of ancient china, who lived as a beggar for years, subsisting on flat bread and weak soups. Nevertheless, it was delicious, and the torn up bread creates an almost porridge like consistency. Very easy on the stomach, especially after days of oily fried foods.

Towards the end of dinner, rice wine was introduced. Don’t be fooled by the ‘wine’ label – this stuff is potent. The drink of that night was a particularly sharp one rated at 50% alcohol. Needless to say, after multiple rounds of toasts (these were fast flowing and meant all involved had to finish their drinks) we were well on the way to a bad morning. As the evenings proceedings drew to a close, the claim was made that rice wine causes no hangover – a claim I was desperate to believe in, as the next day had so much in store.

The next day started early. By 8am we had breakfasted, packed, and were in the van on the way out of the city. Remarkably, we were all feeling great – with no ill feelings from the previous night’s consumption. I made a mental note to make a more thorough study of this incredible alcohol in the near future. We were bound for a place I had read and dreamt about since primary school: the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, also known as the Terracotta Army. I could launch into a fair amount of detail here about this army, it’s historical significance, and it’s remarkable make up, however this is all easily found online – I’ll let your fingers do the walking for that. There’s a few things that are absolutely outstanding for me about the Terracotta Army:

– There are more terracotta warriors than there are personnel in the entire New Zealand Defence Force.

– The entire Mausoleum is designed as a fort, complete with defensive battle formations, walls, and command centers.

– Each warrior requires about 7 years of man hours to be reassembled and restored.

– The current area on display is only one CORNER of the overall formation protecting the emperors tomb.

Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an

Command Center, Terracotta Army, Xi’an

Broken Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an

A traditional bread snack, cooked with hot stones (hence the pitted surface)

After spending the morning being guided around the sites, we were ushered back into the van before heading back into town, there to have a very brief guided walk of the city walls. The Xi’an City Walls are possibly it’s most prominent land mark, and a precious one at that – the only original and complete city wall still standing since the cultural revolution bulldozed the majority of other historical structures. Standing at 12 meters high, and 18 meters deep, the walls are an amazing sight to behold, especially for a boy like me who can attribute a large chunk of his historical knowledge to the Age of Empires series.

Xi’an City Wall

Xi’an City Wall

Yean at the Xi’an City Wall

We had a short lunch diversion to the Muslim Quarter (established in the heyday of the Silk Road – this was where the middle eastern merchants set up shop to sell their wares after the long and dangerous journey across Asia). Lunch consisted of a delicious restaurant rendition of the Xi’an famous ‘cold-skin noodles’, and a selection of juicy dumplings.

Muslim Quarter, Xi’an

From the wall we were taken to the Shaanxi Muesum. This behemoth of a museum was the first of the large government museums open to the public, and it holds about 400,000 artifacts collected from around the area, telling the story of the Xi’an/Shaanxi region from about 10,000 years ago right up to the last dynasty. We were also fortunate enough to go see the temporary exhibit that was on at the moment – a rather peculiar showing of the contents of 3 large claypots found in a buried building on an excavation site. The origin of the pots is up for speculation, but the range of the contents spans cultural, economic, and societal boundaries of the time period it is from, paving way for theories that it’s the loot of a thief, or the travelling stock of a very well rounded merchant.

Shaanxi Museum, Xi’an

Miniature Sculptures for Burial – Several generations after the first emperor had the terra cotta warriors built for his afterlife protection, budget cuts and the progression of religion had lead the emperors to smaller, more compact afterlife company. These were about a foot tall each.

I’d highly recommend getting a guide for the whole museum tour – it’s fairly well laid out and curated, but the extra depth and clarification that a good guide can provide makes the whole trip even more enriching.

Our history lessons for the day weren’t over however – we were taken to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a keystone site for Chinese Buddhism. While I’m still fairly in the dark with the finer details of the story (as it was translated in bits and pieces by Yean and Kuang), the pagoda was built to house the relics and scrolls of the great monk and traveller Xuanzang – who spent 17 years travelling to India in search of the great Buddist scripts. Upon return to Chang’an, he established a translation school, and spent the rest of his days translating the vast books and scripture he had returned with from India. Upon entering the tower, I was immediately stricken, primarily by the low stone doorway, designed perfectly for 5 ft monks but rather painful for unaware 6’4 western travellers. Still seeing stars from the blow, I staggered up the 7 floors of stairs, and was just in time for sunset over the city, with a perfect vista looking out north, south, east, and west.

Giant Goose Pagoda, Xi’an

Temple grounds at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

Temple Grounds at Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

View of Xi’an from the Pagoda

The Pagoda at night

Dinner that night was at a restaurant at what I believe was the West Lake gardens – previously the Emperor’s summer gardens. By this stage I was getting accustomed to the fomalities of a Chinese dinner party, and I was finally able to start relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere. With Yean’s help in translation, I was able to discuss the advertising and design scene in Xi’an with our hosts (dormant and docile were the general conclusions), and how life in Xi’an differs from Shanghai and Beijing. It was then that I realised, this was the furtherest inland I had ever been. In my life. The closest sea water was about 1500kms away. Funnily enough, that thought scared me for a moment. To this day, I don’t know why.

View of the gardens from the restaurant

Even more rice wine was drunk that night, and by the time we left the restaurant, our heads were spinning. We were invited to a golf cart tour of the gardens, and I’m sure they were nice – my memory of them consists mostly of blurs, punctuated by a rather humorous recollection of a guy on a bicycle riding straight into a pillar because he was too busy watching us.

The one (semi) clear image from the night tour of the West Lake gardens.

Buildings and Moon, Xi’an

Carved pillars at night, Xi’an

When we were dropped off at the hotel, we were just getting into party mode. With too much energy we unanimously decided to hit the town. And hit the town we did. Wandering down the road from the hotel, we struck upon an awesome set up – a huge (as in about 12 ft long) telescope mounted on a scooter. Excited, we eagerly handed over the 10 yuan each to have a peak at the moon, saturn, and numerous other planets. As we were finishing up, we noted a crowd had formed around us, all eager to have a peak at what ever it was that was exciting us so much. We walked on a bit futher to find a temporary arcade set up, with various fun activities that would generally be found in a school gala in New Zealand. Feeling competitive, Kuang and I challenged each other at a shoot out, using replica ak47 bb guns against balloons. After I won by 1 balloon, Yean and Angela took each other on in a far more skillful game of darts and balloons. All this got us worked up into a great party mood, and we struck out for a bar. We made it about 1 block before tradjedy struck. Yean took a mis step, and wrecked her ankle. Game over. Unable to walk, I piggy backed her back to the hotel, which took some finding, and we contented ourselves with drinking in the hotel room.

Again, we woke up with no consequences of the night’s revilries, except for Yean’s ankle, which by this stage had swollen up and was looking well bruised. Immobilising it as well as I could with our basic first aid kit, we met up with our hosts one more time for a Xi’an Breakfast (a variation on the bread soup we had for dinner a couple of days ago), and bid our farewells. It wasn’t until we were seated on the aeroplane and just about to take off that we started asking ourselves ‘What the hell happened back there?’

Sunrise over Xi’an

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China Trip Part 3: Jiu Zhai Gou & Huanglong

–Note to Readers: For a parallel and more feminine account of our travels, please visit Yean’s page at feijoacrumbl3.wordpress.com – it’ll be well worth your while!–

The flight from Chengdu and Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport was filled with mixed emotions. Upon leaving Chengdu, it felt as if the pinnacle of the trip had been passed, with just the big tourist spots of Xi’an and Beijing left to check off. As the small plane started to descend however, we became more and more excited. Deep valleys and high rugged peaks opened up, and the plane was soon below the ridges, following the gentle curves of the valley towards an unseen airport. It was with a fair amount of surprise when we touched down – we were that engrossed with the surrounding countryside. Having grown up in New Zealand, I’ve always loved the mountains. There’s something special about mountain air, the freshness, and dryness sending waves of elation and positivity through the body. After a year in Singapore and travelling around South East Asia, it was a relief to step out of the aeroplane and be met with a cold rush.

If you’re planning a trip to the Jiuzhaigou/Huanglong region, please keep in mind the traveling distances. The flight is really the easiest and shortest bit. Having landed, Kuang informed us that we now had to catch a taxi for a 2 hour drive to the village of Longkangcun, where our accommodation was located and within walking distance to the Jiuzhaigou Park. While this was unexpected, it was by no means a bad thing – we spent the next two hours driving through some of the most amazing scenery I think I’ve ever seen. Horse trains formed a lot of the road traffic, and the taxi driver occasionally spoke up whenever we passed something significant.

Sichuan Country

Jiu Zhai Gou Road Traffic

In my first impressions, Longkangcun was a fairly non-descript town – a few years ago it had been a small farming village, and in the space of 3 years, has grown tremendously to the size of a small town. When the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake hit, killing over 68 000 people and leaving an estimated 4 million people homeless, the Chinese government pledged vast sums of money and support to rebuild the area. One of the key areas of rebuilding was to include a sound tourism infrastructure plan, and this is no more evident than in the area surrounding Jiu Zhai Gou valley. Several resorts dot the area, in well hidden areas so as not to distract from the landscape, and the towns are packed with hotels, hostels, and restaurants. Consequently, Longkangcun had a peculiar feeling of being rather soulless – lost in the myriad of grey concrete walls with brightly painted facades decorating the doorways. We were dropped off at the hostel we had booked, and once settled in, proceeded to find dinner, which turned out to be stewed Yak and rice. For the first time on the trip so far, we turned in early, ready for another early start the next day.

Longkangcun

We were out of the door at 6am, walking to the entrance of the Jiu Zhai Gou park. We arrived with plenty of time before the 7am opening, so we took it in turns to keep our place in the ticket queue. As the clock hit 7, a facinating thing happened. The orderly queues that had formed outside the booths suddenly dissolved. We found outselves in a swirling and pressing mob, everyone eager to be the first ones with tickets in thier hands. Kuang and I managed to push our way to the front, got the attention of a vendor, and thankfully, we got our tickets.

Crush at the ticket booth (image courtesy of Yean)

Ticket Triumph (Image courtesy of Yean)

Entering the park, it was easy to see that this was no haphazard affair. Neatly lined up awaiting boarding were a full fleet of buses, ready to take passengers to the upper reaches of the two valleys. We boarded the next available one, and then we were on our way.

Tip for the tourist: Go right to the top first thing, most people will get distracted and hop off at various places on the way up. This allows you to wander down at your own pace and avoid most of the crowds until lunchtime.

We spend the rest of the day wandering the park, only taking the bus once more to get to the top of the second valley. Beautiful views, beautiful logistics, horrendous crowds. By lunchtime the park was teeming with people, and they all were on a mission. It was a competition for everything – photospots, footpath space, seating space, bus seats, bus floor. I’ve never known such aggression. Often we’d be taking a group photo, and would have someone walk in for thier own, while even more often, we’d be physically pushed aside for someone to have their photo taken. But the vistas made it worth it. With forest clad hills as a backdrop, the water in the pools and rivers take on a brilliant blue hue, while remaining so clear any debris on the lake floor is completely visible.

Early morning in the Jiuzhaigou upper valley

Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou

5 Colour Lake, Jiuzhaigou

The crowds start to build, Jiuzhaigou

Forest Waterfall, Jiuzhaigou

River, Jiuzhaigou

Water powered prayerwheels, Jiuzhaigou

Flags, Jiuzhaigou

House on the water, Jiuzhaigou

More Prayerwheels, Jiuzhigou

Shuzheng Village in Jiuzhaigou

We managed to keep walking until Shuzheng Village – one of the 9 Tibetan villages the valley is named after. There we finally called it a day, jumping on a bus for a short trip to the gates. Finding a tea garden straddling the river just outside the gate, we sat down and unwound from the hustle and bustle of the crowds over a cup of tea, and spent a while writing postcards to home (I’m notorious for writing postcards that never quite get sent).

Teahouse at Jiuzhaigou

That night for dinner we found a slightly more exciting restaurant, and dined on yak mince (cooked in tinfoil with a rice spirit set alight), a mutton and sesame dish, and potato balls stuffed with yak meat.

Exhausted from a full day on our feet, we returned to the hostel, made arrangements for transport for the next day, and collapsed into our bunks, with everyone asleep in minutes.

The next day, our travel companions decided to have a lay day – a sensible choice considering one was sporting a leg injury and we were all finding the high altitude walking fairly tough on the body. Yean and I however were determined to make the most of being there, and carried on to Huanglong. Having booked a taxi the previous night, we rose early to grab breakfast from the numerous street stall vendors just outside the hostel. Turns out we didn’t quite pick the right ones – the food was lukewarm, the buns stale, and generally lacked appetite appeal. That said, it was enough to get us going, and after a quick change of taxis as the first one had to pull out, we were off.

Street Breakfast Food

It’s a 3 hour drive from Longkangcun to Huanglong, so make sure you’ve got snacks for the drive. At this point we started wondering if it would’ve been a better idea to have rented a car from the airport – that lasted until we hit the open road, and realised the centerline is more of a vague indication of road halves, and generally not adhered to by the road users.

We stopped off halfway for a break, and a visit to a medicine store, where we were strongly encouraged to buy altitude sickness medicine. Having not felt any of the symptoms yet, and having not felt them the previous day, we were fairly sure that it was a money making trap, but it wasn’t too expensive, our taxi driver was recommending it, and as we’re all about experiences, we went ahead and brought it. It must have worked, because we lived to tell the tale.

Altitude sickness medicine

Carrying onto Huanglong, we crossed several saddles and passes, getting higher and higher each time. The vistas were incredible, and every rise we came over meant cameras came up and started snapping away.

Highest point on the road to Huanglong

We arrived at Huanglong at a respectable 10am. I highly recommend taking the gondola to the (almost) top – it’s a very, very long walk from the bottom. For those unfamiliar with Huanglong and it’s attractions, the main center of beauty are the terraced lakes, sprawling in layers down the mountain-side. New Zealand used to have a similar geological formation called the Pink Terraces, but was destroyed by the Tarawera Eruption in 1886. As a kiwi boy who’d grown up with only paintings to know what they look like, seeing the real thing in real life was worth travelling to the other side of the world for. To tackle the mountain-side, the best bet is to catch the gondola, which takes you nearly to the top. A half hour walk gets you to the terraces, and a quick walk up the slope takes you to the first lake and the Huanglong Temple. Having overdosed on temples in Chengdu, we almost ignored this one, and spent lunchtime gazing over the lakes and the surrounding mountains. From the top, it’s a 3-4 hour stroll to the bottom, depending on how many photos you stop to take on the way. We took a lot.

First glimpse of the Terraces

Huanglong Terraces

Close up of terrace structure

Looking down the slope, Huanglong

Couldn’t figure out what these people with tremendous loads were doing, pilgrimage perhaps?

Yean and the Terraces

Aqua, Huanglong

Waterfall, Huanglong

Reaching the bottom, we met up with our taxi driver, hopped in, and almost immediately fell asleep – apparently excactly the wrong thing to do when in a high altitude environment after exercise, as our taxi driver enthusiastically told us when he woke us up. I suspect he just wanted company for the drive. Not a bad cover story though – we stayed awake for the rest of the drive back to Longkangcun.

After sharing our photos and experiences with our mates, we hit the bunks, and sunk into a deep sleep.

Jiuzhaigou – Tick!

‘Diary Entry – 14 October 2011

I am in seat 23C on flight 3U8835. We are departing Jiuzhaigou, after having spent 2 days here. It has been an eyeopener into the world of Chinese Tourism – an exercise in efficient handling of wandering people. The Jiuzhaigou park attracts 12,000 people daily during the peak period, and the Huanglong park about half as much. The park structure is marvelous, with close to 100kms of boardwalk in Jiuzhaigou alone. Despite all this, and the infrastructure behind it, there were parts with impossible crowds, created, I suspect by the rather self-centered tourists hogging the good photography spots for far too long, getting aggressive with shoves and elbows when seeking a photo in front of a backdrop. The scenery was amazing, and the geography rare, but one can’t help but think it’s all undermined by the crowds. Despite all this, the local culture and people are great. Happy, cheerful, and hardworking, the represent the Tibetan way through their lives. They spend much of their life focussed around the monasteries, taking guidance and teaching from the monks. Their only grip in the world is the hordes of ‘black’ coming to the region; chinese business people in search of quick money through the tourism trade. These people, using the description from the taxi drivers, are generally rude, lazy, and don’t give a damn about the land or the ways of the native inhabitants. We are now off to Xi’an, the old chinese capital, terminal of the silk road, and home of millennia of history. I look forward to the next two days with much anticipation.’

China Part Two: Chengdu

We arrived in Chengdu a few hours late – thanks for an epic flight delay from Shanghai. This was disappointing to say the least – Chengdu immediately struck a chord with us.

Yean in Chengdu

Sugarcane Vendors, Chengdu

Its slower pace and colder climate made for a lovely atmosphere to explore the city, and as soon as our bags were set down at the Traffic Inn, we hit the streets. Using a rough tourist map as a guide, we managed to find the Wu Hou Ci Temple, dedicated to the great Zhuge Liang, a prominent military leader in the Three Kingdoms period. All of this of course found out after the fact – I must say my research for Chengdu was vastly under prepared, as I had seen it as a quick stopover to see the Pandas. Nevertheless – stepping into the temple immediately had it’s effect. Suddenly the noise from the street was cut off. Quietness reigned.

Yean and Chengdu

We had managed to find the temple at just before 6pm – the sweet spot between the huge crowds of tourists and closing time. In the gathering dark, the temple grounds took on a very meditative air, and we slowed our frantic tourist pace to a wander, taking the time to see the gardens, the alleys, the ponds, and all the great halls, which by day may house souviner shops, but at that hour, the shops had mostly shut up, and the courtyards they overlooked were still. Not wanting to waste the incredible atmosphere with reading the information plaques around the place (most of these were in Chinese in any case), I resolved to instead research it after the fact. I’m so glad I did.

Monastery Pool

Love Locks

Temple Architecture

Temple Grounds

Temple Statue

After the temple, we exited unwittingly through a side gate, and ended up in the Jinli Ancient Street markets. Beautifully recreated to reflect the style and feel of old Chengdu, here we found an exciting assortment of candy modellers, calligraphy artists, and a shooting stall with a recreation of the repeater crossbows used in the time of the three kingdoms.

Jinli Night Market, Chengdu

Brush Seller, Jinli Night Markets

Jinli Night Market, Chengdu

Chinese Repeater Bow, Jinli Night Market, Chengdu

Just as our stomachs were starting to rumble, we came to the food street. I had been told prior to leaving Singapore that Chengdu is the spice capital of China, and that there’s so much of it, even the air is spicy. The food street at the Jinli markets kept true to these claims – with my eyes tearing up as we made our way along, cross sampling many of the delicacies – with the clear favorites being the skewers of tender beef – with trays and buckets of spice where you could apply your desired amount of spices with a paintbrush.

Jinli Night Market, Chengdu

Jinli Night Market, Chengdu

Jinli Night Market, Chengdu

After the night market, we consulted our friendly Lonely Planet, and refound the paragraph regarding the world renown Sichuan Tea Houses that are spread liberally through Chengdu. One particular name, Shufengyayun, grabbed our attention with an opera, puppetry, and dance performance included, and seeing that the performance was about to start in 10 minutes, promptly hailed a cab, jumped in, and spent the rest of the trip explaining to the driver how to get there – clearly he really wanted to take us to his favourite tea house instead.

Chinese Opera, Shufengyayun, Chengdu

I’ve never understood Chinese Opera. I’ve always attributed this to the fact that it’s in a language I don’t understand, set in scales and time signatures that to my ear make no sense at all. It turns out it’s all about context. Sitting in Albert Park in Auckland each year at Lantern Festival, the Chinese Opera was merely a filler before the martial art displays came on. Here, in the middle of Western China, on the other side of the world from Albert Park, seated in a cushioned wooden armchair, sipping a lovely green tea that was kept full by kettle bearing ushers, one can easily get lost in the moment. The melodies that seemed random and tasteless previously suddenly made sense – the emotion and drama of the pieces were expertly conveyed, and even without the occasional translation from Yean and Kuang, the overall story was able to be followed.

Shadow Puppetry, Shufengyayun, Chengdu

Shadow Puppetry, Shufengyayun, Chengdu

Comedy Show, Shufengyayun, Chengdu

The acts kept rolling through, and we saw some incredible abilities. The hand-shadow puppetry was magical, the slapstick a welcome light-hearted relief, and then the mask changing came on. If you ever go to Chengdu, ensure you get to the Shufengyayun tea house, if only for the mask changing performance. Most magical tricks these days are well published, well documented, and generally elicit a bit of a yawn from an audience that sees them. This was something different. To this day, the secrets of the seamless and instant mask change is shrouded in mystery, and known to only a few expert practitioners. To someone like me, seeing it for the first time, it was flawless, incredible, and completely magical.

Mask Changing, Shufengyayun, Chengdu

The next day, we woke early. This was meant to be the pinnacle of our side excursion to Chengdu – the sole reason for going in fact. This was the day of the Panda. Boarding an early morning shuttle, we made a lap of the central city lodges before hitting the highway to travel about half an hour out of the city to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center. We chose the morning tour, as all the guide books had recommended, to avoid the crowds that can clog the park. On arrival at the park, we found we were one of two groups there. After making it to the first feeding of the day, we somehow lost our guide, and ended up wandering the park on our own. This was a welcome relief – I’ve never settled well with guided tours, usually ending up frustrated at not being able to move at my own pace, and never actually LOOKING at anything in particular.

One to remember.

After a couple of documentaries, and several enclosures featuring Pandas at various ages (including the ‘awwwww’ inspiring panda cubs) I can safely say I now know much more about Pandas, their idiosyncrasies, their qualities, and most important of all, their fragile position on Earth today. They really are a unique, beautiful animal, and the people at the breeding center are doing an amazing job at postponing the extinction date for the species.

Panda, Chengdu

Panda Cubs, Chengdu

Panda Climbing Tree, Chengdu

Pandas – Emotional Eaters

We returned to the lodge in the early afternoon, with enough time to enjoy a lovely afternoon tea/beer in the dining area, before packing our bags and heading to the airport.

A good drop to try – Snow Beer

Traffic Inn – Highly recommended place to stay for people of all budgets. Cozy, friendly, and serves great Sichuan food in the dining area.

“Diary Entry – 11 October 2011

I am sitting in seat 12C, on flight CA4477, bound for Jiu Zhai Go, there to spend 2 1/2 days exploring the area. I’m extremely excited at the prospect – it has been some time since I last saw stars. I hope it will be underdeveloped, and as sparsely populated as the rumors are. Our last night in Chengdu was spent drinking beer and chatting to the late shift hostel girl. She reflected well what an aspirational country China can be. Hailing from a small country town outside of Chengdu, her dream is to move to Beijing, there to live the ‘Hard and Fast Life’. The Panda sanctuary has left a great impression on me – it really seems like the Panda is the most pathetic, cute, and all round toy-like animal in the world. Due to it’s almost strictly herbivorous diet of bamboo, couple with a carnivorous digestive system, the Panda spends most of it’s day sitting on it’s rear, eating bamboo shoots. As bamboo has little nourishment in itself, and the small intestine of the Panda unable to draw much nutrients from the food, the Panda is also reluctant to spend excess energy, going as far as shying away from reproduction – because of the energy involved. In this light, their only prospect for the future is an artificial life in zoos around the world, acting as a cash cow for China’s Panda Lending Scheme. I’m almost tempted to say extinction would sound pretty attractive given that option. The plane is taking off now – on to Jiu Zhai Go.”

Yean and Sichuan

China Part One: Shanghai

The next few blog posts here will be the long-in-the-making summarisation of my two week trip to China in October – due to my lack of preparation for the trip, my photo storage was not up to par, and I ended up having to store photos all over the place whilst on the road – my friend’s laptop, his dad’s laptop, a usb stick, and a couple of cds being the main areas. It’s taken a while to pull all of these together, and I’m still missing photos – stuck halfway between my computer at the office, and my laptop at home. Bear with me – and trust me when I say this – never again will I travel with merely a 4gb sd card.

“Diary Entry – 7 October 2011

I am sitting on flight MU544 bound for Shanghai. This is the beginning of the long awaited trip to mainland China, after planning started in May. We are meeting up with a friend from university days – Kuang, and his girlfriend Angela. Together we will be traveling for two weeks, seeing the sights and sounds of Shanghai, Chengdu, Jiu Zhai Go, Xi’an, and Beijing. I am highly excited to be back on the road for a reasonable amount of time – short trips such as our Vietnam one are good for breaks, but longer trips seem to leave the soul enriched and nourished. Hopefully this trip will also cure us of our mounting unease in Singapore – two weeks off work is a very very long time.”

Clear skies and crisp fresh air landing in Shanghai.

We arrived in Shanghai at around 5am in the morning, having spent the last few hours trying to catch some sleep on a cramped and crowded China Air flight. Fortunately our customs transition was smooth and painless – our China Visas having arrived the day we were to fly (tip: Apply for your visa about a month out. Don’t give it 2 weeks like we did. No matter what the visa website says).

Powerlines leading into Shanghai.

About 3 months prior to our arrival, I had been idly chatting with my good friend Kuang, who is originally from Shanghai, but has spent much of his teenage/adult life in New Zealand. From our discourse, we realised that we were both planning on going to China for travel, and that our current plans would see us in the country at about the same time as each other. Suddenly our original intentions went out the window, as we realised that we could travel together, making our travel group a total of four (myself, my girlfriend Yean, Kuang, and his girlfriend Angela).

Flash forward a few months, and by some amazing luck, we were waiting for Kuang and Angela’s flight to land from New Zealand – our flight from Singapore had landed a mere 2 hours prior to them. While we waited, a woman approached me, pointed to me and said ‘Kuang’. It turns out, this lady was Kuang’s mother, and my 6’4 figure had labelled me clearly as his friend. Might have also had something to do with the ‘Kuang’ sign we had scribbled and held up just prior.

We spent three days in Shanghai, making sorties into Pudong (the city centre) and surrounding areas. We saw some incredible sights, and some rather un incredible sights. Our dinner with Kuang’s extended family was one of the incredible sort – the energy and passion that was shown at the dinner table was not one I was expecting, and the food was nothing short of amazing. On the lazy susan that night included roast goose, bitter gourd, sea cucumber soup, roast fish, garlic snake, and steamed jellyfish. I’m glad I took several months in South East Asia prior to making the trip to China – before leaving New Zealand, my tolerance of sea food was limited to deep fried fish from the local chippy. Since my travel in Malaysia, and subsequent settling in Singapore, my palate has grown and developed. So it was with relish that each dish came, and I was able to enjoy the food for what it was, and not what my 6 year old imagination said it could be.

Kuang’s Family hosting us for Dinner.

Savory Crepes – Shanghai Street Food

Hand Pulled Noodles.

Produce Transport, Shanghai

Eels at the market

Our trip into Pudong the next day was eye opening – the scale of construction in Shanghai has to be seen to be believed. Everywhere the eye turns, there will be inevitably at least one high rise building being constructed. There’s plenty of sights to see, and then there’s plenty of sights to no bother with. High on the recommended list is the World Trade Centre, and the river side walk. Both give unique views of a city that’s seen incredible change and growth, not just in the last 10 years, but over the course of a couple of millenia.

The Plank.

View from the Bund looking at Pudong.

Skyscraper under Construction.

Shanghai Cityscape.

The Bund at Night.

Another place of worthy mention is the M50 Art District. Located a comfortable subway ride from Pudong, it’s quickly becoming the epicenter of art in the Shanghai greater area. Set in the buildings of an old textile mill, the compound takes on a village-like air with numerous side roads and alleys, hiding small single room galleries that are showing the works of one or two undiscovered artists, while the larger galleries on the main passageways show artists from around the Asia Pacific area. Like any art village, there was the inevitable mediocre work to get through, but that just makes the gems even greater when you stumble across them.

Footpath Decor at M50, Shanghai

Wall Art at M50, Shanghai

Yean at M50, Shanghai

“Diary Entry – 10 October 2011

I am sitting at Gate 25 in the Hongqiao Airport, waiting for our flight to Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Provence in West China. Shanghai was incredible. A world apart from Singapore. The traffic is chaotic, the people a contradiction in polite rudeness, and the stratification of societal classes even more severe than Malaysia and Singapore. But the climate is much more agreeable, customer service is sincere and ernest (if not always well guided) and the prices are genuinely cheap (besides branded items and anything within the Bund).”

2012: Resolutions

So it’s that time of year again – I keep finding myself seated in a peculiarly meditative fashion, reflecting on the past year. The mistakes, the successes, the great ideas and the less great ideas come back bit by bit, as I try to piece the year together and see how it flew by so fast.

It’s been a year of massive change for me. I’ve been out of New Zealand for just over a year now, and while I was originally bound for Europe, I have since landed quite happily on my feet in Singapore.

With my life looking like it’s getting on some sort of track, and great things on the horizon, here’s what I want to achieve in 2012.

My 2012 Resolutions:

Career:

1) Develop my creativity and ideation capabilities. Push the envelope in every project I do.

2) Become fluent in Rhino 3D.

Fitness:

1) Hit the gym at least 3 times a week.

2) Match my alcohol consumption with my gym attendance – 1 pint = 1 gym session.

3) Compete in the 2012 Men’s Health Urbanathlon.

4) Develop my ground fighting abilities at Fightworks Asia.

Traveling:

1) Travel through Japan.

2) Visit Mum and Dad in Salisbury, UK.

3) Go on more weekend trips to nearby countries – Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia etc.

Personal Pursuits:

1) Get back to drawing.

2) Live more sensibly.

3) Improve my sense of fashion.

4) Get my blog caught up to present (yes, I’m STILL writing up my travels in China – stay tuned for that)

5) Learn Mandarin.

Phew. That’s a list. I’ll get to work on it tomorrow.

What’s your plans/hopes/dreams for the year to come?

The Big OE: Singapore

“Diary Entry – 24/9/11”

Today marks nine months since I left New Zealand. What an epic nine months it’s been. To date, I have:

Toured Malaysian Borneo on a pit bike;
Explored Penang (several times);
Scored a job with a high end design agency in Singapore;
Visited Kathmandu, Nepal and laid eyes on Mt Everest;
Learnt a new 3D CAD program – Rhino;
Attended Beer Fest Asia 2011;
Travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam;
Sailed around Halong Bay, Vietnam;
Sat in (nearly) front row seats at the inaugural One Fight Championships;
Went to Formula One Grand Prix Singapore; 

and in a few days time, we fly to Shanghai, there to tour China for two weeks. What a year.”

This year has not gone at all how I planned. My original aim was for Europe. Singapore was meant to be a stop-over. But then things changed. I planted. I found a job. I grew to enjoy a life style that seems so far separated from my previous life, it’s hard to remember what my previous life was like. I even call it My Previous Life.  So it is that nine months after my departure from the motherland, I am in Singapore.

A few things I’ve come to learn whilst here:

Taxi drivers in Singapore are crazy.
I’m not talking funny crazy either. I’m talking homicidal/suicidal crazy. So far I’ve seen taxi drivers exit their vehicle to abuse other drivers at red lights, taxi drivers falling asleep at the wheel, taxi drivers launch into half hour rants on how the Government must leave power immediately, or racist slurs against whoever had taken the previous fare. Ok, I understand it’s a high stress job, with possibly low profit margins, and some really really annoying clients. But the levels some of these guys take driving to often leaves me speechless, breathless, and almost empty bladdered.

When communication breaks down, speak Maori
Or at least pronounce vowels as you would in Maori-ora. Turns out, the languages of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Polynesia are remarkably similar in structure and sound. Something to do with all life starting in Malaysia or something like that (note: I believe this fact is skewed by my better half, who by chance is from Malaysia). If this communication technique fails, I also have found talking as if you were a goose often gets good results. This may be due to the comedy factor of it though.

Work Culture in New Zealand is really, really, really relaxed
Or at least my experience of it has been. Gone are the days of starting the computer shutting down at 4.55pm. Now I feel guilty if I ever happen to leave at 7pm.  But in a way it’s a welcome change. I am able to fully immerse in my work, learning and growing with each day that passes. It’s meant I’ve been able to learn Rhino 3D, develop my illustration and visualization skills, and take my design abilities far past where they were when I left New Zealand. I can’t wait to see where my skills are at by this time next year.

The less English a Muay Thai Instructor speaks, the more urgent you are to do his instructions
I joined a martial art gym in March, with the intention of trying new martial arts I’ve never had a go at before, while keeping my skills up in my current areas of strength. As I’ve always wanted to improve my standing game, I have taken to Muay Thai, it’s fitness, conditioning, and brute force pushes me far beyond comfortable limits every session, and then there’s techniques to remember on top of all that. I hope to take up some BJJ sessions towards the end of the year, when I get my Gi from it’s storage box in New Zealand, in order to get my ground game flowing as well.

Friends come and go, but mates cross oceans to hang out
This might get a bit soppy, but I’ve been absolutely amazed at how many friends and family have passed through this year. We have averaged one group of visitors per month thus far. I guess Jetstar has helped make this possible, but the people that have made the trip, wether you were on your way further north, or just here for a Sam and Yean dose, it’s made us feel loved. To the army ruperts Hamish and Tom, the uni friends Kim, Savannah and Stephen, Granny and Granddad, and most recently my old work mate Simon, thank you. No pressure for anyone who hasn’t made it. No pressure at all. *stare*.

Here’s a few photos of the last few months here to sum it up thus far. Needless to say, there will be more updates on life in Singapore as I learn and grow, and develop more vocabulary.

The Infinity Pool at the Top of Marina Bay Sands

The New Office - Holmes & Marchant Asia Pacific

My one and only one photo of the Merlion

Dorito decides to visit. And stays.

Life is incomplete without wheels. So we went out and brought some.

Tom and Hamish visited. Singapore and Malaysia will never be the same again.

Double Baked Crab. The best crab I've ever had thus far.

One FC. Now the largest MMA tournament in Asia.

Singapore Grand Prix. A far cry from Pukekoe Trackdays. Not sure which I prefer watching though.

Vietnam: Hanoi and Halong

“Diary Entry: 9-8-11

I am on a minibus, currently navigating the streets of Hanoi, en route to Halong Bay. After 3 days in Hanoi, I am looking forward to some comparatively quiet time. Hanoi is a most incredible city, and I wish I had more time to explore it. It has all the hallmarks of a developing South East Asian city, however it seems also very determined to get out of the ‘developing’ status as soon as possible. The rate of change is tremendous, and in many ways, they seem to be emulating what other developed SE Asian cities such as Singapore have done: good roads, daily street cleaning, well maintained public parks, and an emphasis on Services as an industry. It seems only just around the corner that food safety standards are adopted, road traffic made more stringent, and the prosperity skyrockets. It will be interesting to observe. I can also see how my Grandpa became so impassioned upon his visit here, the hurt and suffering that this country has been through is beyond comprehension, and the strong worded government makes pains to ensure it is not forgotten, that this country has beaten off multiple super powers, and are now independent and proud. It definitely reflects in the attitudes of the people – ‘service, not servants’.”

We arrived in Vietnam on a Saturday morning, just before lunch. One of the first impressions we had as we flew over the country was that it was waterlogged. Rice paddies stretched across the landscape, creating a patchwork effect much like the Canterbury reigon in New Zealand, and all the towns seemed to edge right onto a sizable lake.

Vietnam Landscape

Vietnamese countryside from the air

As our airport transfer wasn’t forthcoming, we decided to cab it to the hotel – a nerve racking experience after all the horror stories of taxi drivers exploiting the naivety of tourists and charging them an extortionate amount. We arrived at the hotel safe and sound, and more importantly, still with money in our pockets. We were staying in the Hotel Elegance, one of a chain of boutique hotels, highly recommended to us by a friend. The service and facilities here were second to none, with helpful staff, lovely rooms, and comfortable beds.

Hotel Room at Hotel Elegance

Hotel Room at Hotel Elegance

We spent 3 days making sorties to different parts of the town – exploring the Old Quarter, Ho Chih Minh Memorial park, Army Museum, and the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison. In between, of course, we gouged on Vietnamese cuisine, taking guidance from an array of suggestions from friends, guide books, and our hotel map.

Hanoi Streets

Streets of Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Quarter Wall

Hanoi City

Yean and Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Hanoi Army Museum

Hanoi Army Museum

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Stamp Carving

Street side stamp carving

Of note were the restaurants Cha Ca La Vong, and KOTO. Cha Ca la Vong is a family restaurant, in a rather ramshackle (but clean) old shop house, that sell one food, grilled fish. While it is fair heart attack food, with a lot of butter involved, it was beautiful, tasty, and left us wanting more.

KOTO is a charitable restaurant that takes in street kids, gives them accommodation and income, and trains them up with amazing hospitality skills. The food was divine, and despite a substantially nicer interior (upstairs have nice plush loungers to rest on), the prices were not significantly higher than the other places we had dined at.

One of the interesting cultural oddities I noted in Hanoi is the wake up time for the city. I woke up early one morning to get out and experience the city as it woke up (an activity I highly recommend when in a strange city). I was out on the street at 5am, but I wasn’t the first. Already lining the streets were flower and fruit vendors, hawking their goods to the fairly sizable traffic already on the road. I got to Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the Old Quarter shortly after, to find that what appeared to be half the city out and about jogging or walking laps of the lake, playing badminton, doing Tai Chi (or a Vietnamese variant of it), and even ball room dancing. Needless to say, I was impressed. Singapore seems to be the opposite, with the city still fairly sluggish and sleepy by 9am.

Early Morning Street Vendors

Early Morning Street Vendors, Old Quarter

Morning Exercise at the lake

Early morning exercise at the lake

After three days in Hanoi, we moved on to the second part of the trip, an overnight cruise through Halong Bay. We booked this through Ocean Travel, and chose the Glory Cruises option – with a newly refitted boat, and a good reputation, it was the easy choice. After a 4 hour mini bus drive across to the cruise terminal of Halong City, we were transferred to the ship via tender boat, and were on our way. It wasn’t long before we were cruising through incredible rock formations, green capped and jagged – reminding me of the legend of the Dragons Teeth that formed the islands of the bay.

Glory Cruises

Glory Cruises

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

Yean on Deck

Yean on deck

Cove in Halong Bay

Cove in Halong Bay

Rock Formations

Spoting shapes in rock formations

The accommodation on the cruise ship was lovely, and the service was great. For the first time whist on a holiday, we were forced into doing nothing, only to sit on the deck, sip a pina colada, and watch the islands move by. A wholesome experience overall, and nicely punctuated with side trips like a swim at a cove, a kayak through a floating village, and a walk through an extremely large cave system, where upon we spent an hour or so looking at rock formations and trying to see the animals and shapes that the guide was pointing out.

Our overnight location was beautiful, and despite the presence of about 15 other ships, it was extremely quiet, with only the faint drone of the generator and the lapping of the water against the hull to disturb the silence.

The next day we were back on land at mid day, after a hearty brunch that filled us up for the rest of the afternoon. Another 4 hour mini bus trip back to Hanoi was spent dosing and occasionally taking pictures out the window. After being dropped off at the hotel, we had a couple of hours to spare before we had to head to the Airport, so we dined at a quaint French cafe, and then found a small coffee store where we brought a bag of Vietnamese coffee to add to our collection of Borneo, Cameron, and Himalayan tea that we’re building up at home.

Cafe de Paris

Cafe de Paris

Finally it was time to race to the airport, only finding out there that the flight had been delayed another hour. Note to self: NEVER run out of books to read whilst waiting in the Hanoi airport at 9pm. There’s not too much to do there.

Vietnam is now high on my list of places to recommend, and I’d love to get back there for a more extensive trip one day – I feel a bit disappointed with myself that we didn’t get far out of Old Quarter, which turns out is the main tourist area, and I’d love to see more of Hanoi, for instance the water theme park, the business district, and the West Lake area.

Oh well, next time.

Sunset over Hanoi

Sunset over Hanoi