After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Kota Bahru & Pulau Perhentian (6th - 18th May)

Charlotte rocking the diver look.

To travel from Pengang to the Perhentian Islands the easiest way to go was via Kota Bharu. We only had a late afternoon and evening there, but managed to visit a 'Thai festival' (a few stalls selling bits and bobs, and some awesome Power Tea - amazing Thai ice tea which I'm sure we will discuss at length in the Thailand blog!) and the recommended night market which had so many rats and so little atmosphere we ended up cutting our losses and going to Pizza Hut.

The following morning we took a minibus to the tourist port of Kuala Besut, stopping for far too long on the way to pick some other people up from the airport. The driver then proceeded to drive the rest of the journey like a madman possessed who had watched too much Dukes Of Hazard, flying over potholes and bumps in the road. After our white knuckle ride we got to the port and went to the resorts mainland 'office' (a local families house with a shop out the front) and were shown to the pier by a frankly very rude lady (the joke was on her though, as in her rush to get us on the boat and out of her sight she forgot to make us pay!). Skipping across the still blue ocean in a 15 person speed boat for about half an hour we arrived at the smaller island (Perhentian Kecil) and started dropping other passengers off at various resorts, the sea so clear and turqouise it was as if your brain was photoshopping your vision. The resorts were a little overcrowded though, with lots of wooden huts and concrete hotels (although nowhere near the scale you would expect on some Thai islands) built right out onto the beach. After stopping off at various bays and having our fingers crossed that it wasn't where we were staying, we were the last people on the boat and we finally rounded into what looked like a deserted jungle-backed bay on Perhentian Besar, the larger of the two islands, wondering why we appeared to be heading inland. As we came closer it became apparent that the resort had just made an effort to be discreet and not build directly on the beach, and so the resort itself was just behind the trees. We were welcomed to Bubbles Resort by a friendly English girl and an Australian kid and checked in and were shown to our rooms. The resort itself was no frills, just simple concrete bungalows set back in a cluster from the beach. The rooms were nice enough and clean, although we took the cheapest option and baked ourselves for the duration of our stay in the fan only rooms. The first day we spent on the beach, deserted as the resort had it all to themselves and there were only a handful of guests staying. It was a very hot day and despite suncream and efforts to stay in the shade of the beach, we were both lobster red by dinner. The staff had a good laugh at us and our sterotypical Brits abroad look! The next day we took a snorkelling tour by boat around a couple of different reefs, saw lots of shoals of colourful fish and a couple of huge turtles. At the end we were taken to a freshwater creek to cool off and rinse off the salt water. Charlotte managed to burn her back despite wearing a t-shirt, when floating around snorkelling her t-shirt had ridden up, bad luck!

We decided to do a 'Discover Scuba' day course and were taken out by the resort's friendly South African Dive Instructor, Chris. We liked it so much we decided to carry on and get our PADI Open Water qualification, a course to learn the basics and technically allow you to dive without supervision up to 18m, although we won't be doing that anytime soon! But it will mean we can go on dive trips with Dive Masters to show us the sights at any Dive resort in the world. There were some patronising and tedious videos to watch (PADI is an American organisation - 'nuff said!) and some quizzes to fill in, but it was mostly logical common sense. We did 4 dives and some skills practise in the shallow water at the beach. There are a couple of 'house reefs' at the resort, so all we had to do was wade out from the resort to dive. We also did a couple of boat dives where they took us out to two different reefs (Gadom & Tiger Reef) and we jumped in and dove down to some beautiful reefs and saw some interesting creatures (including big bumphead parrot fish, boxfish, angel fish, batfish, stingrays and another whopper turtle). We passed the final quiz and Chris was happy with our skills so we were issued with our temporary PADI ID cards. Whoop!

The rest of our 5 day stay at Bubbles was spent relaxing the hammocks in the shade of the trees by beach, snorkelling on the house reef at the beach (saw a Black-tip Reef Shark!), swimming and kayaking in the sea and eating in the canteen. The food was OK but nothing spectacular, it all has to be imported from the mainland so it is fairly expensive and it was canteen style food cooked up by some non-Malaysian guys so not exactly authentic cuisine! But it did the trick, and I even enjoyed some tasty, locally caught, breaded fish and chips on a couple of occasions. Beer in Malaysia is very expensive so we only treated ourselves to a can each on one occassion, because of the high tax on alcohol in Malaysia (as it's a Muslim country) and the fact the beer was shipped in from the mainland. The price is just over £2 for a small can, so you easily bankrupt yourselves at those prices. Also the fact was that the cost of two beers would have upgraded us to an air-con room, so we held onto our precious Ringgits (Malaysian currency). The resort also operates a turtle conservation project, which originally we had thought about doing, but in the end the dates didn't work out and it was a little too expensive (we actually spent a little less as paying guests in total than in would have cost to volunteer!), The guy running the volunteering gave us a little talk about the turtles and how their nesting is being disturbed by tourism (especially resort building on the beach, and too many lights, which is why they had taken a more subtle approach). He took us out one night to see a couple of pretty huge turtles (a good metre in length), digging holes in the sand to lay eggs. Underwater they are quite graceful but on land they are very slow and cumbersome as you can imagine, dragging themselves across the sand, before quite energetically scooping the sand out with their flippers. A truly amazing sight. The volunteers also keep the turtles tracks hidden to stop poachers digging up the eggs for sale, apparently they are considering to have health-giving properties. The turtles don't breed until they are on average around 25 years old and many of them die before reaching maturity, so their existence really is in the balance in places such as the Perhentian Islands.

We had also planned to visit the smaller island, Perhentian Kecil and so headed off by boat to a resort we had booked by email a few weeks previously. Chris (dive instructor) kindly came with us to make sure we got there and that the boat guy knew where to pick us up from (our final dive had been called off because of bad weather so we were doing it the next day). We turned up at the resort to find that our reservation had been cancelled, because Paypal had held the deposit payment. The lady explained that she had emailed Paypal (but inexplicably not me, despite me having had booked via email!) and my account had been suspended. I had known this but hadn't worried, as I had received the email the day after I had transferred the deposit, and had an email receipt confirming my payment. Paypal wanted all sorts of bank details that I didn't have on me to unlock my account so I had left it. Now we were stood on the beach, watching our boat disappear back to Bubbles wondering what to do! Another resort we had been originally booked into but had been cancelled due to crossed wires and then told they were full (lesson learnt: don't book accommodation in the Perhentians by email!) was only a 15 minute walk away so we decided to dump our bags and go and see if they had any free rooms. Thankfully they did and we came back and collected our bags, and tramped through the hot and humid jungle (admittedly the paved path made it a lot easier!) further up the coast and checked into our wooden hut on stilts, a stones throw from the beach. It was located in a small, picturesque bay with a beautiful beach and great swimming, with a collection of wooden huts just back from the beach. The accommodation itself was basic to say the least, but what more does one need in paradise other than a bed, mosquito net, fan and a toilet? It wasn't particularly clean but we wouldn't be spending much time in the room. We also had a little balcony with a hammock and table and chairs, the perfect spot to chill and out and read, with a lovely view of the beach and out to sea. The people working there were a crazy couple of guys, a young guy with a pet otter (very cute, it even followed us all the way to the next bay when we were collecting ours bags) and an older bloke who liked to sing and exclaim 'OH MY GOD!' a lot. They both made for some light entertainment most days! Although with only 2 staff, great patience was needed in the restaurant if there were a few other guests in there, one day I had to wait an hour for a cheese sandwich! We soon discovered that the resort we had supposed to have been staying at had a very good restaurant with good food and a nice atmosphere so we tramped on over there a few nights for dinner. Each day they did a special dish and we enjoyed some great locally caugh Snapper fish in Thai curry sauce, and a delicious Chicken Korma on our last night. Their generator had given out so one evening they closed their kitchen early, although very kindly whipped us up some sandwiches as we had walked all that way in the dark. But it made the restaurant even more atmospheric eating by the sea by candlelight.

We would have loved to have stayed on the Perhentians longer and chilled out in the sun reading and swimming, but we dragged ourselves out of the hammock as we were due to arrive in Thailand at our volunteer project. We got the boat back to Kuala Besut and waved goodbye to Perhentians. Truly paradise!

We ended up spending another night in Kota Bahru after returning from the Perhentians and enjoyed it much more this time around. We asked the hostel guy where we could get a beer (it being a Muslim province most restaurants and shops don't sell beer - only the Chinese restaurants) and he jumped at the chance of showing us to a place nearby. Because he is of Muslim origin (although non-practising) it is frowned up for him to drink in public, but apparently it's acceptable if he is with foreigners. He still got some funny looks from the Chinese patrons though. He seemed to enjoy meeting travellers and questioning them on their philosophy on life. He took us back to the rat-infested night market but this time it was surprisingly rat-free and there were a fair few more people milling around. We bumped into a German guy who was staying at the hostel, who had also bumped into an American guy he had met at some other point in Malaysia (even when travelling to far off destinations, the world can still seem small!) and we got some amazing tasty treats. Grilled chicken, blue rice with curried anchovies, really great food. It changed our perception of Kota Bahru a lot. I had a chat to the German guy about beer (he was a Bavarian) and despite being un-stereotypically slight for a Bavarian he really loved his food and beer, and was waxing lyrical about the grilled chicken and bakery products he had bought (made me chuckle as he sounded a lot like Uter the sterotypical German boy in the Simpsons). The American was from Gainsville, Florida so I chatted to him about The Fest which is punk rock festival there I have also wanted to go to. The night ended with a failed attempt at watching Shutter Island on the hostel TV (dodgy pirate copy, it skipped so much we watched the 'entire film' in 40 minutes!) and we hit the hay in preparation for our journey across the border to Thailand.

Perhentian Islands & Kota Bharu, Malaysia

Monday, 13 June 2011

Kuala Lumpur & Penang, Malaysia (30th April - 6th May)

Tasty food by the sea.

After a flight to Kuala Lumpur from Chengdu, we realised why we enjoyed rail travel so much. What seems like a short journey can be significantly extended when you have to take a bus from the airport to the train, a train into the city, and finally a metro to get to the hostel. At least generally when you get somewhere by rail you're actually in the city centre. Basically what would have been a 4 hour flight ends up taking twice that. Also despite travelling cattle class on most of our rail journeys, it somehow isn't quite as bad as cattle class on a plane. At least you can have a wander on a train, maybe grab a drink or bite to eat in the restaurant car, stretch your legs at a station etc. So despite endless, occasionally hellish journeys by train it's still our favourite mode of travel.

So to KL - a bit of a summary I guess is appropriate. People had warned us of it being 'another commercial Asian city - busy etc', but it actually seemed pretty tame coming from China. The lack of beeping horns and crazy drivers took us off guard and made the whole place feel a little sleepy in comparison. We only had a couple of days there so did the usual; exploring Chinatown (nothing like China - except for some interesting temples which have long since been destroyed in China), looking round the Indian and Malay quarters, and walking to the Lake Gardens (is unworthwhile a word?). We did a trip out to the Batu Caves, which apart from the impressive Hindu God towering at the entrance, and the cute monkeys scampering up and down the steps, was really just a fairly unimpressive cave with a couple of statues. And the beer is expensive. And usually Carlsberg. The less said the better.

Ok so you're probably thinking we spent the whole time slagging the city off, so this is to counteract the above!

We had some awesome food. Really good, cheap Indian and Malay grub, with lots of tasty side dishes. It felt refreshingly healthy after China. Having said that a deep fried mars bar probably would too..
On two consectutive days we went to see 'Dr Fish', as in the paddling pools full of fish which nibble the dead skin from your feet. The fish were a hell of a lot bigger than what we had seen back home in Meadowhell etc and they really went for our feet. Fairly embarassing as passers by stopped to watch and question why they were swarming round us so much, seemed to do the trick though!

We visited the National Mosque, where Charlotte got to dress up as a Jedi - not just a distasteful joke, look at the photos and you'll see what we mean! We also wandered up to a pretty cool Butterfly Park and saw some huge colourful butterflies. And the Petronas Twin Towers, all lit up at night, were very impressive.

From KL we travelled up to Penang, where the British first landed in Malaysia back in the day. The best thing to be said about Penang is that it is really awesome for food. Big food halls next to the sea serving up a tasty mix of different cuisines, nice and cheap. Awesome deep fried banana bread, chicken satay and curried stingray. Can you really justify visiting a place just for its food? Arguably yes, especially for us! Apart from that Georgetown didn't leave much of an impression. There are some interesting old colonial streets but apart from that it is very grey and commercial.

We started our trip there with checking into our pre-booked hostel in Georgetown. It was a brand new hostel, looked pretty swanky on the website (aimed at 'flashpackers', alarm bells should have been ringing from the start!), and we booked in haste as we were worried that nowhere else seemed to have availability or weren't getting back to us. What an error. The photos on the website were obviously an artist's impression of how it might look in the future, the whole place had been decorated with grey paint making it feel like a prison, our bathroom hadn't been cleaned and the cleaner proudly told us he'd "changed the sheets just for us". Erm, damn well hope so mate. So basically we logged onto the internet (incidently, checked BBC News and read about Bin Ladens demise), realised that one of the places we'd emailed had finally got back to us with availability, drew ourselves a rudimentary map from the current hostel to the new hostel via Googlemaps, and checked out 30 mins after checking in. The receptionist didn't seem in the least bit surprised.

The new place was much better, in an old colonial mansion, and they sorted out our Thai through them, as we would only have been issued 15 day visas travelling over the border by land. We visited Fort Cornwallis (an old fort built by the English, not much left of it though) and some temples around Georgetown, including an interesting Hindu temple where we peeked in on part of a service, all waving insence sticks and beating drums. For the next two days we stayed further along the coast at Tanjung Tokong in a nice little guesthouse where we could use the pool at a nearby hotel, which was lovely, especially since it's not advised to swim in the sea due to the amount of jellyfish. The area itself was mainly hotels and apartment blocks so we can't say it changed our minds about the feel of Penang itself, but we did find a great Indian place that served dishes on banana leafs, and an outdoor food court serving all sorts of Asian food. We visited the impressive Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia, where we nearly roasted to death climbing the million buddha pagoda (most of them pictures on tiles rather than actual statues) and took the funicular railway up to see a giant golden Buddha.

In true laid-back style we headed out in the morning to catch the bus across to the east coast town of Kota Bahru, and having got stuck in the rush hour traffic on the bus and in the taxi, arrived with 2 minutes to spare, to run up to the office to get our tickets and thankfully board the bus which kindly waited for us! We enjoyed some good food at a bus stop on the way (no non-descript "haven't we been here already?" service stations like back home, just roadside cafes with squat toilets and tasty food, with the added thrill of Russian Roulette food poisoning to keep things interesting). And so we were on our way for a 'week off' (tongue firmly in cheek), to spend relaxing by the beach!

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

Chengdu, China (26th - 29th April)

Charlotte and the Big Big Buddha.

Chengdu was our final destination in China. We spent a fun few days there, and felt it had a pretty good feel to it and more of definitive centre to it (marked by a huge Mao statue, naturally) than some other Chinese cities. The weather had certainly heated up and our hostel had a nice graden terrace, so after the long rail journey we spent some time chilling out there.

The first full day we went to visit the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre, where we enjoyed watching Giant and Red Pandas lolling about in the sun, chomping on bamboo and occasionally cooling down in the small pools. There really is something very endearing about pandas which is hard to put your finger on. The information provided showed a fairly hilarious lack of accountability for dwindling panda numbers ('more research is needed on why the pandas were dying out' - err really, how about not chopping down all the bamboo forests?) and an awful lot of self-congratulatory back-patting for China's conservation efforts now. We were also amused by the references to mating as marriage ('the marriage ceremony can take place in a field, or up a tree')!

Back near the centre of the city, we explored the People's Park and Wen Shu Monastery. It's amazing how one minute you can be on a busy street with honking horns and hawkers and then step over the threshold into peace and serenity. The temple is also home to a teahouse where we enjoyed far too many cups of jasmine tea (free refills courtesy of the staff wandering about with big teapots of hot water), and watched men having their ears cleaned by a man with a thin vibrating metal pole, a bit like a long tuning fork. Very bizarre.

One evening we went to see some Sichuan Opera, not at all like its Western counterpart and more like a variety show. Amongst the usual singing and dancing we enjoyed some amazing shadow puppetry, a guy playing an impressive string instrument that at times sounded like a horse neighing, and the climax of the show was the Sichuan speciality of 'Changing faces, changing costumes'. Basically guys in cloaks and masks leap about the stage, with their cloaks and masks changing colour at random intervals. It was pretty good and they came right out into the audience to do it and we still couldn't really figure it out; the masks are obviously really thin and laid on top of each other so that the top one can be whipped off, but they manage it so quickly and who knows where they stash the discarded mask. The performance was in a teahouse so we enjoyed yet more tea throughout the performance.

We also did a day trip our to Leshan to see the Giant Budda. It's the largest carved stone Buddha in the world at 71 metres tall, and is carved into a cliff face. It's really hard to get a sense of scale from any of the photos but it really is completely huge. After various travels in SE Asia we've seen a fair few Buddhas, but this is by far the most impressive we have seen. The site also has lots of temples and other things to see it would have been nice to see a little more, but we had a flight to catch. The 30-odd degree heat wasn't exactly conducive to walking up and down endless flights of stone steps either!

Our time in Chegdu was made even better by meeting up with Liam's future brother-in-law's brother, Tom (as in Emily's fiance Alex's brother). It was fab to meet up with a fellow Chorleyite, meet his girlfriend Cecelia and hear about his experiences teaching at the University there. Tom took us out for some great food, including the Sichuan speciality of hotpot. A very unhealthy meal of a bowl of bubbling beef dripping, chillis etc is placed in the centre of the table, with a choice of what ingredients to cook in the vat. Under Tom's persuasion we tried tripe, eel and ... pig's brains. All of which we wouldn't be adverse to trying again!

To commemerate our time in China - here are the top 5 best and worst things generally about travelling in China... and in many ways, ironically enough, the best things also make the worst list!

1. Food, accommodation and transport is all very reasonable and usually good quality. Sampling the various treats was a highlight and certainly changed our opinions of Chinese cuisine. Hostelling International in China has obviously had some serious recent investment so was often verging into boutique hotel territory. China is bloody massive, but we travelled over 1000km for less than the price of a rail ticket from Sheffield-Manchester, but 20 hours in a seat can get a little wearing.
2. It's a country of huge contrast; from the peace of the countryside, rivers and rice terraces to the hectic madness of the cities. Guidebooks are often useless in China due to the breakneck speed development going on, every city was full of half built skyscrapers and flyovers.
3. The majority of Chinese are friendly and happy people. They seem to have no inhibitions whatsoever about walking around singing, or whistling, or doing strange exercises such as walking literally backwards around a park. Wherever we went, people said hello to us and asked us where we were from (and liked having their picture taken with us!).
4. The other backpackers in China (I think it's fair to say) are a little different from a lot of those who hit the usual Asia trail (or the Banana Pancake Trail as it's often referred to!), perhaps a slightly older bunch and less gap year travellers (nothing wrong with that of course!).
5. Cheap beer! Tsingtao managed to persuade Liam that drinkable and (shock horror) enjoyable low strength lager can be produced! When the weather's hot outside, one can want for nothing more, and imbibing in a few too many won't leave you with a hangover in the morning.

1. Food hits the list again. Although we had some utterly amazing food, we felt glad to leave and eat some healthier food, decrease of fat, salt and MSG intake and increase our fibre intake!
2. It's a huge country (stating the obvious of course, but we now truly appreciate that after endless hours on the train!). We spent a month there and felt like we'd barely scratched the surface. It also meant that we literally spent over 10% of our time there just travelling on trains.
3. As well as being friendly, the curiosity that we invoked in people became frustrating and annoying at times. We had our photo taken a lot, which we didn't mind when people actually asked us but was a different matter when people just snapped at our faces willy nilly, or when we were at a teahouse and a guy had a very long lens permanently focused on Charlotte.
4. Tourist attractions are pretty overpriced. We often paid more for entrance to a tourist attraction than for a nights (very comfortable) accommodation.
5. Obviously: politics, lack of freedom of speech etc. It didn't really directly affect us, but was disheartening to hear about nonetheless. Although the 'Great Firewall' is surprisingly easy to circumvent.

Despite ending on a slightly negative note, we still immensely enjoyed our time in China and are already planning a return visit, we would have loved to have travelled to Tibet for starters and we never did make it to Xian to see the Terracotta Warriors... so fairwell to China although I have a feeling it won't be long until we grace your soil again comrade!

Chengdu, China

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Guilin, Yangshuo, Xingping & Tiantou, China (14th - 25th April)

Enjoying the fruits of our labour at a cooking class.

Our trip to Yangshuo started with a rail journey from Shanghai to Guilin (where we very much suspect we were in the 'family wagon' due to plethora of screaming young 'uns and a severe lack of beer or junk food being offered on the trolleys) and after a night in Guilin (not much to say about it really, it rained a lot so we didn't get to see much - highlight was some awesome chilli flatbreads from a street vendor) we took what was purported to be a 'bamboo raft' down the Li River to Yangshuo. The bamboo raft turned out to be a motorised raft made of plastic piping stuck together, with a few bits of loose garden furniture thrown on top for us to sit on. Luckily it had a decent roof so we didn't get too wet despite the drizzle. The karst scenery on the river was really awesome, quite majestic and eerie due to the low cloud that clung to the oddly shaped, foliage-clad mini-mountains, and it reminded us of Halong Bay in northern Vietnam.

In Yangshuo we stayed at the 'Yangshuo Culture House', a pretty cool homestay/guesthouse where food is included in the nightly price, and was located in a peaceful suburban street a short walk from the centre. Yanghsuo itself is a very touristy, busy town on the Li River, with streets reminiscent of the tourist streets in Thailand etc. The real highlights of the town are getting away from the centre itself. We hired bikes and a guide along with some other people from the guesthouse; Birget and her son Noah (Germans), and Maya and Tamara (Israelis), and enjoyed a fabulous day cycling through rice paddies and out into the countryside. At one point our bikes were abandoned for a more authentic bamboo raft on the Yulong River, this time without the incessant drone of motors and with the added bonus of mini waterfalls and floating beer sellers. Gently floating down the river with a beer in hand, doesn't get much better! Every now and then there was a mini-rapid just to keep you on your toes, but as long as you remembered to lift up your feet you didn't get soaked. We also climbed to the top of 'Moon Hill' for great views across the landscape. An irritating factor of Chinese tourism is having to pay quite a lot to get into everything (paying to climb a hill - really?) and then still being hounded by hawkers all the way up. Ho hum.

One evening we went to see the Liu Sanjie Impressions show, directed by Zhang Yimou who also directed the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. The audience (some 2500) are seated in a natural amphitheatre overlooking the Li River. As night falls, the mountains and river are lit up spectacularly, and 600 local performers tell a story through song, dance and physical theatre routines actually on the river, using rafts and walkways. It's hard to make it sound as impressive as it was, but it was certainly an amazing spectacle.

Our final morning in Yangshuo was spent participating in a cookery class, along with six hooray henry Brits (I'm not sure we've met any northerners yet!). The class started with a quick trip to the local market to buy ingredients. It was our first experience of a proper Chinese food market, and the live fish and frogs in the first hall did nothing to prepare us for the second hall, which amongst the usual array of poultry, rabbits etc also contained cats and dogs. The sight of sorrowful looking dogs in cages, right next to a huge boiling pot with legs sticking out and some cooked dogs strung up was disturbing sight. But even sadder, due to our cat loving nature, was a huge cage filled with dozens of cats piled on top of each other, all looking very lethargic and giving plaintive muted meeows, quite heartbreaking! Appetite thoroughly shot to pieces, we went onto make Beer Fish, a Li river delicious specialty of white fish in a beer, ginger and chili sauce; Gung Bao Chicken, a spicy Sichuan chicken dish with peanuts; and vegetarian steamed dumplings. Even if we do say so ourselves, the results were pretty bloody tasty (and our appetite most certainly returned) and we can't wait to get somewhere where we can try out the recipes again.

We then traveled to Xingping, a bit further up the river, for some relative peace and quiet compared to the tourist bustle of Yangshuo. Xingping is a nice small town, not touristy enough for it to get annoying but enough to have good tourist activities and markets. The hostel we stayed in was fabulous (Hosteling International China has obviously had some serious investment recently) and we had a balcony, so much time was spent reading and writing and whiling away the time overlooking the river and the amazing karst scenery. We enjoyed some great walks along the river, and playing table football and pool with a Danish and a Belgian girl we'd met at the hostel. Good times.

Our final destination in the province was Tinatou, a village a few hours north of Guilin, which is famous for it's rice terraces. We caught a bus to Dazhai to be met by a woman from the guesthouse, and then walked for about 45 minutes along stones paths and lots of steps up to the village of Tiantou. Pretty hard-going in the 30 degree heat, but we resisted giving our bags to the local women who tried to persuade us fairly relentlessly for them to carry our bags for us (for a fee of course). We're all for supporting the local community, but there's something not quite right about giving your bag to an elderly lady to carry for you! Also, Liam with his huge bag likes to feel he is capable of hauling his bag around himself, if not he might have to seriously consider jettisoning some of his extensive book and t-shirt collection! The rice terraces around Dazhai are very impressive, they are manmade stepped terraces carved into the hills, which are flooded each Spring to grow rice (when we were there they hadn't been flood yet). When they have been flooded they sparkle in the sun and are said to look like dragon scales, hence the nickname Dragons Backbone rice terraces. Mao declared Dazhai his model agricultural village before the Great Leap Forward (which ended up as nothing of the sort). We did a great hike to different view points in the area and agreed that the 'stepped' nature of the terraces make the hills look like they were made of Lego. Quite spectacular scenery and it must be amazing to see it through all the different seasons as it changes colours. The villagers are interesting as they are Yao ethnic minorities, who all wear a beautiful pink and black outfit and the woman don't cut their hair but wear it wrapped around their heads in a scarf (examples here). We celebrated Easter here by having boiled eggs and French toast for breakfast! Also egg fried rice for lunch, but sadly no chocolate eggs.

The time had come once more for us to be on our way on a mega train journey (we worked out that in China we spent 3 days on the train, 10% of our entire stay!). How fitting then that our last overland journey should be 25 hours in hard seat class (sleepers were sold out again), in the baking heat and with gawping Chinese teenagers. A flight will seem like heaven (maybe)!

Li River, Yangshuo & Xingping, China

Longji Rice Terraces, China