Published: August 8th 2007May 28th 2007
The remainder of my time in China ended up being a lot more relaxing than planned, for reasons I will go into later . . .
After leaving Yangshuo, I took a minibus to Guilin and then an overnight train to Kunming. The train journey was a similar experience to the Guangzhuo - Guilin one, in that the resounding noises were the ubiquitous snoring, hocking and spitting that by that time I had more or less come to expect from the Chinese, if not gotten used to.
Upon arrival at my hostel in Kunming (the most excellent Cloudland Hostel) I quickly made a plan for the next week, as I was intending to stay in China only another week before heading into Vietnam. I had booked a flight to Shangri-La (in the north of Yunnan province) as I was interested to see the mountainous landscape there, and as it is one of the nearest Chinese towns to the Tibetan border, I was keen to check out the Tibetan monastery in the area, given that I wasn't going to have time to actually get to Tibet proper. The plan was to spend a couple of nights in Kunming before flying
Photo courtesy of Ory, who chased this guy down the road to take it.
to Shangri-La, and then work my way back to the city via a couple of other stops on the way.
The first couple of days in Kunming were fun - I had met some great people at the hostel, including two lovely guys, Ory from Israel and Gary from France, and on my first night in Kunming we headed to a local bar with some others from the hostel. It was the first place I had encountered in a while that had beer on tap, so as you can imagine much fun was had by all. The next couple of days were spent lounging around the hostel, which has an excellent communal area, complete with a ping pong table and pool table. It was an easy couple of days, during which Ant will be pleased (or not) to hear I improved my table tennis skills enormously! I'm ready for a rematch!
The day of my flight to Shangri-La arrived, so I hopped in a taxi to the airport, pleased that I had managed to leave most of my things at the hostel and was carrying only some warm clothes that I would need for the mountainous altitude of
Green lake (but not THE Green Lake), Kunming
Note curious colour of water - this is caused by extreme algae build-up. Gary and I thought it looked like someone had spilled a whole load of paint in the lake.
northern Yunnan in my daypack. It would be the first time I think I had ever flown without having to check any baggage.
I hadn't been looking forward to flight north, as I had heard it could get pretty bumpy with turbulence flying low over the mountains, but to my great relief it was fine, and the hour-long journey was quite pleasant. Upon exiting the plane, the weather felt much warmer than I had anticipated, almost tropical in fact, and I was rather confused. Something didn't feel quite right about Shangri-La. However, I brushed this feeling of unease aside and, feeling rather smug that I didn't have to wait to claim my bags, I made a beeline straight for the taxis that were queueing outside the airport. Upon greeting the driver and showing him a card for the hostel I had planned to stay at, I was met by an eruption of hysterical laughter and a stream of Chinese that I didn't understand. On seeing the utter confusion on my face, he called a couple of his friends over and, after pointing at me and the card I was carrying, they proceeded to break down into fits of laughter
as well. Hmm. The feeling of unease I had had before soon escalated into a mild panic. What the hell was going on?
I walked back into the airport and spoke to a lady at the information desk. Luckily, she spoke very basic English. I explained what had happened outside, and tentatively asked her if this was Shangri-La airport. (I would like to point out at this stage that there are about 4 different names for the town of Shangri-La, and I didn't know them all, so the fact that I didn't recognise the name of the airport upon arrival had not fazed me up until this point). She started to break into a smile, but after seeing the look on my face, managed to compose herself before responding that in fact, no, this wasn't Shangri-La. To cut a long story short, I had ended up in Xishuangbanna, in the tropical south of Yunnan. To this day, I have no idea how it happened that I got onto the wrong flight - the flight number on my boarding pass matched the one on my ticket, the time was the same, etc - and my confusion as to this mix-up
still remains as strong today as it was then.
I decided to buy a ticket to return to Kunming that evening, as I had only limited clothing with me, and certainly none that were suitable for a tropical climate. If I had brought all my bags with me, I quite probably would have stayed there for few days anyway, but given the fact that I hadn't brought them, and the fact that I was still fuming about the flight mix-up, I just wanted to go back to the Kunming and the comfortable, friendly atmosphere of Cloudland Hostel. The airline refunded me a small fraction of my ticket price, I think more as a goodwill gesture than anything else, but I was still unable to afford to book another flight to Shangri-La, and to be honest the experience had left me feeling a little doubtful that I was ever meant to go there.
For someone that isn't the world's most confident flyer (and someone that doesn't normally agree with taking flights when there is a feasible alternative) I ended up taking not one but two completely unnecessary flights that day, but by the time I returned to the hostel
and saw the looks on the faces of the friends that I had left just that very morning, I was in much better spirits and able to see the funny side of the experience.
Next morning I awoke and decided that I would stay in Kunming until my crossing into Vietnam. The May holiday in China was approaching, where a lot the country basically travels to see their families back home for the week, so I also decided that I would leave China after the holiday. It suited me fine, as I was not yet ready to leave a country that I had only just begun to find my feet in.
Speaking of 'finding my feet' (or not, as will now be explained), my complete lack of luck when it comes to my legs was not over. A few nights before I was due to leave China, I went out for a few beers (for 'few', read 'many') with some friends from the hostel - unfortunately, I hadn't eaten much that day, and not being used to consuming vast amounts of beer, I got VERY sick. Sick to the point that poor Ory had the task of carrying
me up four flights of stairs to my room and putting me to bed. The next morning (or rather afternoon) I woke up to find that I couldn't walk on my right leg. To this day, I have no recollection of what happened, and nobody I was with could shed any light on it. But I assumed it wasn't too serious and carried on limping around anyway.
A few days later, with leg still causing me grief, it was time to say goodbye to China and take an overnight bus to the China-Vietnam border in Hekou. Waiting for the bus (at possibly the most insanely confusing bus station ever) I met two German guys who were heading to Vietnam as well, so it was cool to have some people to talk to on the bus before we went to sleep. The bus journey was pretty bumpy, and I vaguely remember that we had to stop a couple of times as the bus kept breaking down, so I didn't get much sleep. Every time we went over a bump, the impact jolted my leg and sent a shockwave of pain coursing through it. This was not good. It was at
this point, after nearly a week of walking around on it, that I realised that perhaps it was not going to get better on its own, and that perhaps I should see a doctor when I got to Hanoi.
Teamed up with the German guys, Daniel and Johannes, our first stop after crossing the border was Sapa, an hour's minibus journey from the border town of Lao Cai. Sapa is beautiful, a small mountaintop town in the north of Vietnam, which afforded us fantastic views of the steep rice-terraced valleys and tiny minority villages - a great welcome to Vietnam. After having a great, much-needed breakfast and checking in to my hotel, we spent the morning walking round the town and quickly teamed up with a local guide called Van. He walked with us up to a great viewpoint, although I only went halfway up thanks to my knee - the boys dropped me off at a cafe for a cup of iced tea while they continued to the top. During the afternoon we rented motorbikes (me on the back of Daniel's) and took off to explore some of the local area. We visited Cat Cat Village, down in
the valley, and watched local women weaving some of the beautiful clothes I had seen them wearing and selling up in the town. It was a really fun afternoon, as all my experiences on motorbikes have been, and the time flew by as we zipped up and down the mountain roads. Daniel and Johannes were booked on the sleeper-train to Hanoi that evening, as they were on a ridiculously tight schedule. I had decided to spend the night in Sapa and meet them in Hanoi the following evening, after taking the daytime train.
Hmm. Hard seat on an 11-hour daytime train. In the heat and no air-conditioning. With a very painful knee and no room to move it. Wasn't one of the most intelligent decisions I have made on this trip. But it was an experience, and although I make it sound awful it wasn't entirely unpleasant as I made friends with some sweet Vietnamese ladies and spent some time trying to talk with them, with the aid of my phrasebook. But by the time I got to Hanoi and checked into my hotel, I was extremely grateful that I had asked the boys to book a room for
me somewhere. The amount of dirt from the train journey that came off me in the shower was something else entirely. Oh, and did I mention the air-conditioning? Bliss.
Later that evening the boys and I tried to go out on the town - however, we were amazed to discover that all the bars seemingly closed at 11:30pm. Upon enquiring about this at the hotel, we were told that the police had been doing a lot of patrolling in the area recently, so all the bars we closing early so as to avoid trouble (at least, I think that's what she said in her broken English). We had been looking forward to our night on the town, as the guys were on a trip to Halong Bay the next day before heading somewhere else, but it was obviously not meant to be!
The next day I decided that the time had come to visit a doctor, and I was recommended a local International clinic that had English-speaking local and expat doctors. After filling out the obligatory forms on arrival, I was seen by a Vietnamese doctor who had a quick chat with me and told me I needed
an x-ray, which I had 10 minutes later. Thankfully, the x-ray revealed that all my bones were intact, so that was something! They gave me some anti-inflammatory tablets and cream, wrapped my knee in a tubi-grip and made me an appointment to see the physiotherapist later that day. To cut another long story a little bit shorter, I have been in Hanoi for a week and a half, having physio more or less every day. The bad news is that it hasn't really helped it that much and it's been setting me back $75 every time I visit, but hey. It could be worse.
Anyway, enough about the leg. I fell in love with Hanoi from pretty much the time I arrived. For a city, the nation's capital at that, it has a fabulous small town feel to it that I have not experienced in any other city on this trip. There are no high rises to be seen, the streets are narrow and tree-lined, and there were a wealth of interesting shops and delicious restaurants all within walking distance of my hostel, which is in the heart of the Old Quarter (which is just as well, given that
I'm not exactly speedy right now). My one regret is that I wasn't able to get around much on foot, to really experience the full atmosphere of the city, but I would love to go there again (possibly next year to teach English) so I'll be able to then. I did make it to a couple of museums though, the Museum of Ethnology being a particularly good one (not just for the fun 20 minute motorbike ride there!).
One trip I did manage to do was a 3 day trip to Halong Bay. When I first arrived at my hostel in Hanoi I met a couple of Irish guys called Ciaran and Alastair, an American guy called Ryan, and a Canadian called Adam, and we all ended up on the same trip. There were only the 5 of us on the whole trip, and we were staying on an island (aptly named 'Paradise Island') that we had to ourselves for our first night there. Day one began with an early start - we were picked up from the hostel and taken to Halong City, where we boarded our own private junk boat, which would take us on a leisurely
sail into Halong Bay. On the way to the island we stopped at a cave to have a look around, which was ok, but after the caves I have seen on this trip (the Jenolan Caves in Australia, for example) it wasn't too impressive. What was more impressive was the bay scenery outside, which was beautiful and made me fully appreciate how Halong Bay obtained its UNESCO World Heritage status.
Shortly after leaving the cave, we anchored next to a pearl farm and the boys spent some time leaping off the boat into the clear blue waters. I was given the job of official photographer for their escapades, as although I may have made it into the sea with my bad knee, I wouldn't have made it out as the only way back onto the boat was via a vertical ladder. Ah well.
By the time we made it to Paradise Island, the five of us had managed to drink two boats dry of beer, and I think it is safe to say we were all feeling rather merry. Instead of stopping, however, we continued in such a fashion on the island, but luckily soaking up some of
the alcohol with a delicious meal, served to us by the island staff. A few games of pool and a late-night skinny dip in the phosphorescent sea completed day one of our trip, and we all retired to our lovely beachside bamboo bungalows feeling tired but happy. I had a gorgeous double room to myself, which was fantastic.
Day two of the trip began fairly early as well, and surprisingly enough none of us had a hangover, although we definitely deserved to. We took the early morning boat over to Cat Ba Island, about 5 miles across the bay, rented motorbikes (I was on the back on Adam's, once again thanks to the knee) and spent 5 hours racing around the entire island. It was a fantastic way to spend the day, as we got to see some stunning scenery that we wouldn't have access to if we weren't on the bikes. It was a scorchingly hot day, though, and by the time we stopped for lunch the boys were more than a little sunburnt. I was a little pink as well, even though I had liberally applied the factor 30+. Shortly after arriving back at Paradise Island, another
group arrived to begin their trip. There were only 8 of them, and although we were a little miffed at first to be giving up our 'private' island, some of the group were people from our hostel, so we had another cool evening, playing pool and chilling out in the bar.
The following day it was time to leave, and we sadly said goodbye to the island we could all have quite happily spent another few days on. The boat/bus trip back to Hanoi was long and uneventful, and we were all pretty tired so the boat didn't make as much money out of us drinking beer as they had on the way over! The trip was well worth the money though, and Halong Bay truly is a beautiful part of Vietnam and the trip with the boys was great fun. They were all fantastic and really helpful, carrying my bags, fetching stuff for me and helping me up into boats - I couldn't have survived it without them!
For my last few days in Hanoi I tried to do as little as possible, as the Halong Bay trip did take its toll on my knee a little
bit. Of all the places I could have a bad knee, though, Hanoi is an easy one to be in because of its small town feel. I have been able to eat at lovely restaurants every night, and go out for the odd beer or two with the guys (although one night they did have to take turns to carry me!). A great Vietnamese drinking tradition are the bia hoi areas, where you can go and mingle with the locals and other travellers, sitting on a low plastic chair at the side of the road, watching the world go by, drinking a glass (or ten) of beer that will set you back around 2000 dong (about 6p). Good times.
So, the latest is that I am now in Ho Chi Minh City, about to meet Mum and Keith tomorrow, who are coming out here for a holiday. It will be so great to see them, and I'm really looking forward to it. Thanks to my knee problems, I have decided to cut my trip a little shorter and not venture into Cambodia and Laos as originally planned, as I really feel that I need my body to be in
full working order to go there and appreciate them fully. So I will be home earlier than planned as well! But enough of that for now, I'm off to jump in the shower (not literally, as that probably wouldn't be too sensible right now) and head out for some food. I have met up with Ali and Ciaran again here in Saigon, and I don't doubt that tonight could end up as boozy as last night . . .
There are more photos below