A Travellerspoint blog

Shanghai

Toilet star rating = 5 star

We took a final turn around the canal and into the modern town the next morning before dragging our bags back to the nearby train station. Bus touts pounced on us along the way trying to convince us their vans were the only transport to Shanghai. Bus and taxi touts would be very prevalent in Shanghai. After we bought our tickets to the real bus to Shanghai we were surprised to bump into Mischa from Germany, who we'd met at the Great Wall almost three weeks earlier. In a country of 1.3 million people, what are the odds? The two hour bus ride took us through a region of grimy canal towns and factories. There were two security stops on the way. The Chinese take security very seriously. Every bus and railway station, metro, airport and the major highways have x-ray security checks. I must admit that everywhere we went in China we felt very safe.

At Shanghai bus station we had to run another gauntlet of taxi drivers just to get to the subway. We'd booked a room at The Captain Hostel near the Bund but on our Lonely Planet map it was in Putong, Shanghai's modern financial district. The subway almost got us there but when we came up into the sunlight we couldn't quite work out where we were. After wandering around somewhat aimlessly we grabbed a cab - luckily the Lonely Planet had the address in Chinese characters. The taxi made turned two corners and headed west before we saw the sign. We asked the driver to pull over but he didn't seem to get the message initially and we thought he was trying to rip us off. He eventually understood and we got out and walked back to the hotel. The Lonely Planet review of The Captain said it was fairly mediocre - and it certainly looked it! Inside it was very shabby and almost empty, only a Chinese couple smoking a table. To top it off there was a problem with our booking - they knew nothing about it at all. Once again it was time to pull out the trusty laptop, but despite advertising wi-fi, there was none. What the? The staff kindly let me sit down at the reception computer and I opened our emails, but again, the email confirmation was in English so they couldn't read it. Things were beginning to get a little frustrating when Shelly picked up a brochure from the front counter. "Which Captain are we booked into?", she asked. I red her the address. She held up the brochure. "There's two." One in Putong and one on the Bund. We were at the wrong one. We later found out there are in fact three - there are two off the Bund. The Lonely Planet also made an error. Their review and English description was for the main one off the Bund, but the Chinese address is for the second one - where we were booked - but their map shows the old and shabby Putong one. "So you don't want to stay here?", they asked a little disappointed. Sorry, no. They helpfully wrote out the address and instructions in Chinese for the taxi driver and we bid them adieu.
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We finally arrived at the real Captain some two hours after arriving in Shanghai. The hostel was pleasant enough and the room was clean. Their television, which had about 300 pay TV channels, was almost impossible to operate without a detailed instruction manual - which there wasn't - but in the end we did manage to find an English language station.
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Part of the appeal of hostels is the support networks that help you as a traveller. We'd been blessed with extremely helpful hostel staff all through our trip and I'm not afraid to say that without their help booking our travel, translating and making recommendations, our travels in China would have been a nightmare. Sadly the staff at The Captain weren't in the same league. They were friendly and polite but seemed unable to provide even rudimentary assistance or recommendation. The girls on the desk couldn't even advise where the restaurants or bar areas were. "There is a restaurant next door.", the girl said. "But is there an area where there are many restaurants are?" "Yes, there are many restaurants." "But where?" "I think you can go to next door." "Okay, is there a bar area? Nightclubs?" "Mmmm, next door is also a bar." "Anywhere else....?" "The Bund." .....
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But The Captain's location was not a disappointment. From the front door we simply crossed the road and we were right there on the Bund. In the late 19th century the Bund was the centre of the European colonial presence in China. As today, this was where the money was and along the southern bank of the Yellow River arose a row of art deco banking and trading houses, proclaiming the west's domination over China. The signs which once shamelessly trumped "No dogs, no women, no Chinese" are now long gone, as is the west's domination. China is now in control of its economy and it's western companies who come cap in hand to get a piece of the action. And what a piece of action! Every westerner we met in Shanghai was there to do business. They all talked about deals, about money and about opportunity. So much for the American Century.
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Nanjing Road is Shanghai's famous shopping street. It was wall to wall neon lights, shopping centres, and big name stores. We thought we'd be able to find something to eat somewhere along the Road, but it was all western food - and not very good ones, aka McDonalds, KFC et al. We walked right to the end of the Nanjing Road before swinging back towards the Captain, hunrgy and frustrated. Luckily about three blocks south of the hotel we came a little restaurant district where everyone seemed to be selling hotpot. The restaurant we chose was absolutely packed and although the air was so thick with cigarette smoke you could cut it with a knife, the meal was delicious.
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Over the next couple of days we took in the sights. We wandered around the French Concession with its 1920s European houses (a little over-rated), visited the Shanghai museum which had an impressive collection of Chinese porcellin, shopped and basically just wandered around and took things easy. There isn't really much of an old town left in Shanghai. What passed as 'old Shanghai' was basically a old style theme and shopping park built around a couple of old temples. We wandered around that area a couple of times looking for the Yuyuan garden that was supposed to be a tourist attraction. It turned out we'd walked past it both times we visited (it was near the hotel) because it was less a garden than a pond in the middle of a shopping mall. Crazy! That was pretty much the only place we heard the words "Limiao!" called out - it means foreigner (actually it is more a derogatory term used to mean foreigner) - but I think they were calling out to warn other shop keepers that a couple of suckers... er, foreigners were ready to be ripped off... er, I mean, no, basically, ripped off, rather than because they'd never seen foreigners before.
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On the Thursday night we did the Drunken Dragon pub crawl. It was really an ex-pat affair as we were the only tourists there but it was still lots of fun. http://www.pubcrawlshanghai.com/DrunkenDragon/Dragon_Trail.html
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We were certainly moving a little slower the next day, but we did it again on Friday with the Tipsy Panda for their Heinken Halloween pub crawl. As they say "Shang out with your wang out!" http://tipsypanda.com/
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World Expo
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We moved on from the Captain to a flasher hotel for the last two days of our holiday. It was nice to relax in some comfort. Our room even had views over the Bund to Pudong. We booked through Lastminute.com and got an extremely good deal.
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Our last day in Shanghai was also the last day of the World Expo. The advertising for the Expo had been relentless all through China. The Expo ran for about seven months I think and during that time some 50 million odd people poured through its gates - nearly two million A DAY during the October national holiday! We expected it would be pretty packed on the last day but it really wasn't. There were however no tickets left so we had to buy from the many scalpers loitering around the gates. We bought ours for 200 yuan each from a gap toothed old man who spoke excellent English. We expected we'd get as far as the gate and find out the tickets were fake, but they weren't.
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I must say the Expo is a strange affair and I don't really get what it was all about. Most of the exhibitions were very odd. Australia's was as pathetic and sycophantic as we'd expected, but at least it was more interesting and popular than Albanias. There were enormous queues for the more popular exhibitions - five hours to get into the German exhibition, which was supposedly amazing. Still, the buildings were very interesting and arty. They alone made the Expo worthwhile. We spent many hours there (it was a huge area) and didn't even cover a quarter of the park.
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At 5pm, with the sun beginning to set, I felt a sudden panic. When we booked our flights online through Air Asia we assumed when we selected departure from Shanghai it actually meant Shanghai. We didn't think anything when the itinerary said Hangzhou, we thought that must have been a suburb of Shanghai. And so we never gave it a thought until we pulled out the itinerary to check the time of the flight and ...Oops!!! Hangzhou!!! The same Hangzhou we'd visited earlier in the week. The same Hangzhou that is 300 kilometres from Shanghai. Oops! Luckily for us we'd seen a news item earlier in the week announcing that a new highspeed train link between Hangzhou and Shanghai had just opened. In fact the highspeed rail link had been built in only 18 months - a world record for rail construction. This meant a trip which was formerly over three hours could be done in only 45 minutes.
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Getting to Hangzhou was still a rush though. Going from the Expo to the hotel to the railway station on the subway took longer than expected. We made it to the bullet train with about 10 minutes to spare. The train was more like a plane than a train, very smart and flashy. A display screen on the wall ticked off the speed as it climbed all the way to 320 kilometres per hour.
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There was chaos at Hangzhou train station. Although there was an orderly queue for taxis, private taxi drivers pounced on every traveller in an attempt to nab a fare. The official taxi queue was long and moved slowly but steadily so there was certainly a potential market for impatient travellers, but the taxi drivers were so aggressive and pitched their prices so high that no one, Chinese included, would accept their offers. If only they were a little less greedy they would have been fine. It took about half an hour for us the catch a cab, then another 45 minutes to drive out to the airport. And then it was all over. On the plane and back home via Kuala Lumpur.

China certainly exceeded both our expectations. It was vibrant and exciting country. The people, even though communication was difficult, were always extremely friendly.

Posted by paulymx 07:47 Archived in China Comments (0)

Xitang

Toilet star rating = 5 star

At the beginning of the 7th century, after centuries of chaos and anarchy, a new imperial dynasty succeeded in re-unifying the many waring states of China. The first Sui emperor had done the nasty business of unifying the country. The second Sui emperor consolidated the state by undertaking massive public works projects, including renovation of some parts of the "Long Wall." He built new, spectacular palaces, rebuilt the capital cities of Xian and Luoyang and built rebuilt the roads. All of these projects and the hardships they caused made him extremely unpopular and he was eventually assassinated after a reign of some thirty years. The Sui dynasty were then replaced by the Tang dynasty, who would govern China through the most magnificent period of its history. Although the Tang would damn the Sui as tyrants, they were forced to admit that they were the fortunate beneficiaries of the Sui's hard work.
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Of all the building projects undertaken by the Sui, the greatest is perhaps the least known. It's not a palace or a wall or a city. It's a canal. Called the Grand Canal, it's a network of canals linking China's many river systems and lakes and is the longest canal system in the world. It was originally constructed between 605 and 609AD and is still still in use today, 13 centuries later.
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Between the lakes of Hangzhou and the port of Shanghai are a network of picturesque canal towns. There is often very little left of the original towns as most have been 'modernised.' At Xin's recommendation we visited Xitang, a very small canal town who's main claim to fame was to be a setting for the movie Mission Impossible 3. We were able to get a direct bus from Hangzhou at 1.50pm, arriving about 4pm. A crowd of trishaw riders were waiting at the station for us. Xin had said the cost of trishaw into Xitang old town should be no more than 5 yuan (about a dollar). Of course none of the trishaw riders was willing to accept a 'Chinese price' so we walked off. It didn't take long for one of them to bid 10 yuan and we accepted. When we got to the old town we were amazed at the size of the streets. They were barely wide enough for two people walking, let alone the trishaw. It made for an interesting ride.
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The trishaw could only take us so far then we had to carry our bags (how rude!). The guest house was little cafe with a couple of rooms out the back. We'd taken the small room for 185 yuan (quite expensive for China). It was well fitted out and very nice but the bed was as solid as rock.
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Xitang itself was very, very scenic. It was a photographer and artists' paradise and we took loads of photos.
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We ate that night at the restaurant where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had eaten (well there were photos on the wall). The girl at the counter had excellent English. Bar street was filled with bars and clubs, each had bottles hanging from their walls like trophies and was belting out deafening karaoke or live music. We visited two bars but they were empty (it was a Tuesday I guess).
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The most extraordinary thing about Xitang was it was filled with police officers. Dozens and dozens of them, all wandering around, doing nothing but texting on their mobile phones (just like so many other Chinese).
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Posted by paulymx 06:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

Hangzhou

toilet star rating = 4 star

After Yangshuo we were in a quandry. We had wanted to go to Fujian province to see the mountains and round houses but typhoon Meiji was expected to cross the coast there any day. Probaby not the best destination under the circumstances. But where to instead? The travel agents in Yangshuo only organised local travel so we hopped on the bus back to Guilin. At Guilin bus station we were admirably assisted by the young girl at the tourist office who not only helped us choose our next destination but also booked us the tickets. We decided to fly to Hangzhou, a city east of Shanghai. Hangzhou is famous in China for its lakeside scenery, especially the West Lake, which has featured in Chinese poetry and paintings for millennia. So it was another midnight horror flight for us.

We'd booked accommodation at Hofang Hostel, but as we were arriving so late we'd not be able to check in until the next day so we booked a flash hotel room on www.lastminute.com. It was a real change of pace for us, but arriving around 2.30am we didn't have much of an opportunity to enjoy the luxury. After a wonderful night's rest and huge breakfast, we took a taxi to the hostel. The taxi driver was a young woman but she had all the road rage of her male colleagues. Throughout the drive she was abusing other drivers, the traffic and the difficulty of finding the hostel, which was off the main road on a pedestrian side street. It got to the point we thought it best to get out of the cab and try and navigate our way ourselves, but the driver insisted we stay in the car until she'd got us as close as she could. Of course we couldn't actually follow any of this at the time.
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It took us a little while to find the hostel as we didn't have a detailed map or clear directions but once we were in we were very impressed. The hostel was in a restored Chinese shop house and our room opened onto a small interior courtyard. The room itself was small, on two levels with all modern fittings. What's more, the bed was SOFT, which was a godsend after the rock hard mattress of Charming Inn. The staff there were exceptionally helpful too, especially Xin, who provided us excellent assistance.
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After checking in we headed down to West Lake. This huge lake has been used for recreation by Chinese emperors and their courts for millennia. This was because Hangzhou is only a couple of hours from Nanjing, the southern capital. The lake shore and islands is littered with little temples and pagodas. To simplify transport around the lake, a causeway was built right across its centre in the 10th century. It's still used today. The lake is best viewed on an overcast day when the mists of the surrounding mountains give the lake a pleasant aspect. It was certainly overcast today. In fact, not long after we arrived it began to drizzle. As the day wore on though the drizzle became rain and by sunset we were quite damp and disillusioned.
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We wandered back to the hostel, changed into dry clothes and headed out for food. Sadly it was now pouring with rain and after visiting and rejecting several restaurants (mainly due to the number of dubious dishes on their menu), we settled for fast food. Not the western kind mind you, fast food Chinese style. We encountered many fast food restaurants in China which follow the western model of cheap, quick meals and set menu deals. Most were pretty good. We had two different noodle soups, which were fast becoming our staple meal. When we set off on this trip Shelly had commented that she didn't know how she was going to go with the food as she's not a big fan of Chinese, but during the whole trip we only ever ate Chinese. We also became somewhat adept at chopsticks, simply because we had no other choice. Many restaurants don't even have knives and forks.
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The next day we headed out early for a quick walk through the old town area (we were right in the heart of it). This was a tiny sliver of 'character' amongst the modern metropolis of new buildings. Then we went back to the hostel to arrange our next destination. Between Hangzhou and Shanghai is the canal zone (more on this later). There are several canal towns that are popular with tourists. Xin recommended Xitang as the best to see and then booked us a bus, accommodation for the night in a local guesthouse, and wrote out our travel instructions in English and Chinese. She was exceptionally helpful and we can't thank her enough for her efforts. When she'd finished making all the arrangements she looked at her watch and said "It will be beautiful for you to go right now I think", meaning we'd better go now or we'll miss our bus. And with that we said not goodbye to Hangzhou, but au-reviour!

Posted by paulymx 06:27 Archived in China Comments (0)

Yangshuo

Toilet star rating = 4 stars

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The Li River runs through Guilin on its twisting winding way southward to the sea, but within the city itself it's less of a river and more of a creek. It's so low in parts that you could walk from one bank to the other and hardly get more than your ankles wet. Consequently the starting point for the stunning Li River cruise is a port about half an hour south of the city. Even so, the river was still so low you could see the bottom only inches below the hull of the the cruise boats. And there were plenty of cruise boats. We were part of a long convoy of about twenty boats. The Li River cruise rivals the Yangtse River cruise for popularity. The difference is it's only four hours as opposed to four days. Neither Shelly or I could stomach the idea of being couped up on a boat for that long, regardless of how luxurious it might be.
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There isn't much to say about the Li River scenery. It is beautiful and I hope the photos do it justice (as far as that is possible). Even so, after four hours you do tend to get a little blaise. The lunch on board, despite reports to the contrary, wasn't so bad.
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The cruise terminates in the little town of Yanghuo. Tourism is Yangshuo's raison de-entre and it starts the minute you set foot on the dockside. Vendors are calling you and trying to lead you to their restaurant / bar / guest house, etc. You should avoid the touts as they invariably try and swindle you.
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We had booked a room at the Charming Inn, which although servicable wasn't exactly charming. The bed was rock hard, like many in China. To our delight we found we were right next to a late night bar and got to enjoy the beats pumping through the wall into the early morning hours. Ahh well, that's what you get when you go cheap!

That evening we went to the Sanjie Liu Impressions spectacular. We weren't exactly sure what to expect of this show but it was basically a version of the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. It is set on a beautiful lake surrounded by jutting karst peaks that were as much a part of the show as the choreography itself. It was truly memorising and we were very impressed. Unfortunately no photographs can really do the show justice.
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The next day we took it easy in the morning before venturing out to Shangri-la on a tour in the afternoon. Shangri-la is a Chinese 'minority peoples' theme park village. It was totally for Chinese tourists and no one actually spoke English. While all the activities and shows were pretty lame (I guess), there was no denying Shangri-la's beautiful setting.
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After the tour we piled back in the van but instead of returning to Yangshou we drove to a massive military warehouse. Even the Chinese tourists were perplexed as Peoples Liberation Army soldiers escorted us into the lobby of the building. In front of an enormous tank a young soldier gave a lecture about defense hardware produced by the factory 'to keep China safe' or some such thing. Then we were escorted to a small theatrette and were locked in while the young soldier commenced a 'Demtel' type demonstration for kitchen knives! It was surreal. After the demo, the soldier left the room and was replaced by a young female officer who tried the hard sell technique. One couple bought a set but the rest of the customers were as bored as the rest of us. After 15 minutes we were finally let out of the room and escorted to the gift shop, which was positively enormous. On the way through I counted 34 'interview rooms.' Even after we passed through the gift shop we weren't free. The gift shop opened onto a zig zag market filled with aggressive shop keepers grabbing at us and trying to sell us .... cr*p. When we got to the van we were all offered a complimentary steak knife, which we politely refused.
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That night we bounced from bar to bar, enjoying the spectacle of the Chinese night club scene. The Chinese certainly can drink!
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We spent the next morning at the Yangshuo Cooking School. The session started with a trip to the local food market. The fruit and vegetable section was interesting but the meat section was both distressing and disturbing. The one thing that you could say about the Chinese is that they are unsentimental when it comes to food animals. Seeing fish and frogs dismembered alive was bad enough but there were much worse things going on there.
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The cooking lesson afterwards though was excellent and we can definitely recommend it. The food was delicious and so simple to prepare.
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Posted by paulymx 07:00 Archived in China Comments (0)

Guilin

Toilet star rating = 4 star

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The limestone karst landscape around Guilin and the Li River has inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia and millions of tourists flock here to cruise the beautiful river and soak up the scenery. We arrived on the flight from Kunming about 1am quite the worst for wear. The hostel had organised a pick up for us so we followed the guy with the sign and hopped in his cab for the 40 minute drive to downtown. The hostel had warned us about dodgy taxi drivers so maybe we were a little paranoid. We were certainly confused. We thought we were going to Wada Hostel but when the driver dropped us at Backstreet Hostel, took our money and sped off, we thought "WTF!?" While we were standing there angry and confused another taxi driver offered to take us to Wada. We accepted in bad grace and we set off again. 10 minutes later at Wada Hostel we were assailing the poor girl on the desk with stories about the taxi driver ripping us off and leaving us stranded. She was most concerned and helpful but couldn't find our reservation. I jumped on a PC, checked our emails and confirmed our reservation with.... Backstreet. Oh dear!! It was now around 2.30am so we decided just to check in to Wada and sort out the whole sorry mess in the morning. The room at Wada was drab and awful but we were exhausted and crashed.
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The next day we moved to Backstreet, which was situated right in the heart of the pedestrian tourist district and very nice. The staff could not understand how we got so confused - "but we sent a car for you?" Err, yes, but we were crazy. At least I had illness as an excuse. I was still quite sick and spent the rest of the day sleeping. I only managed to rouse myself for dinner later that night.
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The next day we did a walking tour of the city. Guilin has many parks and lakes which gives it a pleasant ambiance. In one of the lakes is the twin pagodas. One stands on a small artificial island. The other is set in the lake, connected by an underwater passage to the first pagoda. I don't think they are particularly old as the bronze pagoda has an elevator inside, which made going up a breeze, but walking down was a bit of a challenge. The Chinese seem particularly fond of very steep stairs.
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There are limestone karsts and caves throughout the city. We took a taxi to the Reed Flute Cave, the best on in the city. Like other Chinese tourist attractions it was a little bit theme parky, but despite this the size of the cave was truly impressive. From there we visited another park, but it was pretty awful so we headed back into the heart of the old city.
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Dead set in the centre of the old town is Lone Beauty Peak, a single karst spire jutting up in the middle of the Ming era castle. The castle and grounds are now a university. There is a little shrine at the top of the peak and the views are spectacular so we joined the hordes of Chinese tourists scampering up it's steep slopes. But we chickened out about a third of the way up. The marble steps were very steep and slippery and the Chinese tourists are pushy and careless (I am continually amazed how people here simply step out into the street without even looking!).
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Another wonder of Guilin is the Waterfall Hotel. At 8.30pm every night about a trillion gallons of water pours off the top of the hotel in an artificial waterfall. It's truly bizarre. And a little spectacular.
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That night we stopped for a drink at the German bar and bumped into Dave from Attadale. Talk about a small world? He lives one street from us in Perth! We had a long chat before we set off for the local night club. Once again we were the only foreigners in the place and people bought us drinks. We had a great night and drank way too much.
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They take security seriously in China!

Posted by paulymx 22:04 Archived in China Comments (0)

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