Vientiane, Laos

After 5 wonderful days in Luang Prabang we were on the move again, flying South to spend a few days in Laos’ capital city: Vientiane.

Our decision to visit Vientiane was largely practical – an opportune pit-stop en route to Phnomn Penh in Cambodia – and I was quite intrigued as to what we would find there having read contrasting reviews online from people who had visited. Some wrote of an idyllic, laid-back city where the aroma of freshly baked baguettes drifted from pavement cafes, while others described a drab, spiritless, hectic place with little to do or see beyond a handful of – albeit beautiful – temples.

So which was it? Idyllic, or drab? Laid-back, or hectic? Or a compound of both, coexisting under the wrapper of ‘Vientiane’?

The more negative reviews weren’t enough to worry us; we had packed a healthy dose of optimism and figured that, if all else failed, we could make our way through the menu in some good local restaurants, get a massage, do laundry and so on. However, over the next few hours my optimism slowly ebbed away. I admit that a sky full of drizzly grey cloud never helps, but crappy weather aside, first impressions weren’t great.

Boat Festival… Vientiane Style

In my previous blog I mentioned that Luang Prabang were gearing up for their annual boat festival, where wooden rafts dressed as fiery dragons are lit with candles and floated down the Mekong, carrying away bad luck from the previous year. Vientiane also had plans to celebrate, although the atmosphere was somewhat different.

In what seemed to be Laos’ rendition of Mardi Gras, thousands of people had flocked to the city and many roads in the centre were blockaded by cranky-looking policemen cradling wooden-handled rifles. Any idyllic tranquility had been chased away by blaring loudspeakers from the sprawling ‘night market’ (more on this later), and ear-piercing whistles blown by aforementioned policemen. When our car finally broke through the traffic and dropped us at our hotel, we dosed up on a little optimism and decided to get some sleep; things would be better in the morning. Unfortunately sleep was easier said than done – our hotel was only 50m from the heart of the market, so we could hear the loudspeakers, music and whistling until around 3am.

The following morning we took a (grumpy) look at our hotel’s ‘What’s on in Vientiane’ notice. Oddly, it didn’t mention the massive festival right on our doorstep, instead listing things like ‘Construction Materials Convention’, and ‘National Bus Logo Drawing Competition’. Not feeling inspired, we decided to walk along to the tourist information centre to get some advice. Ironically, the building intended to help and guide visitors was a bit of a challenge to locate and so we found ourselves wandering up and down streets like the ones below; squashed rows of damp, disintegrating buildings garnished with graffiti and sodden piles of trash.

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Luang Prabang had pulled off the peeling-paint look with a character and charm which sadly eluded Vientiane.

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The Tourist Information turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall in an unremarkable building where we were simply handed another copy of the map which we’d already been given at our hotel, detailing a handful of monuments, temples and the presidential residence. Having seen a number of temples already – and not wanting to ‘temple-out’ before we reached Cambodia – we estimated that there was a day’s worth of activities, max.

Only 11am and already time to engage Plan B: eat some tasty local food and perhaps track down one of those provincial French cafés for an espresso and side of sugar-glazed goodness. Easy, right? Er…. no. TripAdvisor revealed that the top 10 restaurants were Pizza or Burger joints and so even Plan B started to look unworkable. At this point, I lost my patience with Vientiane.

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Plan A & B aborted, we quickly drafted Plan C – to bring forward our trip to Phnom Penh and write off Vientiane as a sunk cost. So ensued a 2 hour escapade to and from  Vientiane airport and Vietnam Airline’s HQ (which had been temporarily relocated to a hotel in the centre of town due to the airport renovations), where we eventually managed to book tickets for the following day. With an afternoon and a morning left, we ate a Pizza and set off to see some of the sights, starting with the National Museum.

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Despite being full grown adults, I admit that we had a bit of a giggle when we arrived at the museum. The the dilapidated entrance, prehistoric-style paintings and wooden planks crossing a muddy river wasn’t too far off a set from an Indiana Jones movie – it looked so incredibly low budget that it was difficult to take seriously. The large 2-story building may have once been the Pride of Vientiane (maybe in the ’70s?) but had obviously fallen on much harder times. In the small lobby a young girl collected our $1 entrance fee and I paid an additional $1 to take my camera inside.

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Either side of the entrance gate, someone at some point had painted these oddly bad al frescos of famous Laotian landmarks – this one featured the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuang province.
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Wooden planks had been lain (left side) for pedestrians to navigate the deep puddle which had collected around the entrance.
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For the last 6 years I’ve been trying and failing to persuade Matt that we should take a ski holiday, his excuse being ‘I have no balance’ – ha, photographic evidence to the contrary!

The first exhibit generated more giggles; a small model of a dinosaur with the sign ‘Dinosaurs have long necks and tails’ – an endearing over-generalisation hopefully aimed at children – a couple of strange dioramas of neolithic people standing around next to papier-mâché trees, and some light-bleached photos of deer. Beyond this though, we found that the museum had some pretty interesting and valuable artifacts and exhibits- important discoveries of well preserved prehistoric man, dinosaurs, ancient iron-works and well preserved pottery.

The museum spanned an immensely ambitious time frame from pre-history (dinosaurs) to modern history (post millennium), though most of the content was dedicated to the conflicts with and invasion by the French (from the late 19th Century) and the astonishingly extensive bombing by the US in the 20th Century. These exhibits belied a deep sense of national pride and gave us a powerful insight into the trauma that Laos had endured at the hands of it’s protectorate, but the museum itself was in serious need of some TLC. The photographs, paintings and weapons were either jumbled in crumbling display cabinets or simply left out in the open, exposed to the ruinous heat and humidity. With such a small stream of visitors paying such a small amount ($1 is a third of the price of an ice cream in the parlour across the street), we wondered how long this place would be able to scrape by. What had started out with giggles ended with a more quiet reflection on the historical significance of the contents of the museum, left to rot and bleach in a crumbing mansion.

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On our final night in Vientiane, we adopted the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality and joined the thrum of night-market-goers along the riverside. The market had a lot of the tourist-friendly tat that you would expect, but was unmistakably aimed at locals, not tourists. Glaring lights from hundreds of street stalls polluted the night sky, illuminating the mundane necessities of daily life – toilet roll, washing powder nappies and socks. Pretty young girls in too much make-up and outfits that left little to the imagination shouted offers into microphones, their voices compounded by music from loudspeakers and the collective chatter of thousands of people. The intermittent rain had produced pools of muddy water which barefoot young guys swept away from their stalls with pieces of cardboard. Apparently the market sets up each night all year round but during festival time it is larger-than-life, and the crowds suggested it was a highlight in the Vientiane calendar. Half an hour was enough for us though, before we headed back to the hotel for dinner.

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BBQ eggs: Finally, we’ve found a food that even Matt (he who famously ate a desert made from frog fallopian tubes) draws the line at!

The next morning we packed up our things and made our way back to the airport (for the third time in as many days) and reflected on our brief experience of Vientiane while we waited for our flight.

Sleep-deprivation and drizzle undoubtedly coloured our view of the city – maybe if we’d arrived under a clear blue sky a week later then we’d have had felt differently; even so, I think we would have struggled to find the languid, laid-back capital described by those who visited before us. Modernity has infiltrated Vientiane, evidenced in the Dairy Queen chains, garish commercial festival-market and sprawling construction sites (soon-to-be shopping malls), but the ‘development’ didn’t seem to be happening in a particularly harmonious way. We were only there for a short time, but felt it represented a dystopian vision of what might happen to the rest of Laos if this was allowed to spread.

I took a photo (below) which I thought illustrated the problem in Vientiane. It shows the ‘Lao National Cultural Hall’, a modern, grand imposing structure, outside of which sits a large plastic stein, advertising Oktoberfest. The main sponsor is ‘Beer Lao’ (a very tasty Laos Beer, owned by a Laos company) and the event is cosponsored by a bunch of other brands from the Dutch/Danish Carlsberg Heineken Consortium. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of globalism, and why shouldn’t the Laotians enjoy their local beer in the context of a European sponsored German beer festival? Maybe some of that foreign investment will improve the lives of local people?

Maybe, but there’s a sad irony that this National Cultural Hall sits directly opposite the Laos History Museum, with it’s sadly decaying cultural artifacts, poorly protected by a damp, decrepit building; where handfuls of visitors pay a dollar each to trace Lao’s struggles to retain independence from Imperialist influence or control by Americans and Europeans.

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We don’t for one second expect a country to stay poor and idyllic just to satisfy tourists’ Instagram feeds – if the local residents want to eat American ice cream, then it’s absolutely their prerogative – but equally, we can’t fairly say that we’d recommend to visit this place.

Next stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

– Emma

 

Day and Night in Luang Prabang, Laos

This is my third and final love letter to Luang Prabang. Located on a tropical peninsula – a long finger of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, approximately 1km long by 300m wide – the city was tiny but so so beautiful. I wanted to capture everything and took hundreds of photos; squeezing my favourites into two blogs was impossible!

Luang Prabang Old Town…

Along the centre of the peninsula runs the main street, a spine off which stems quieter streets lined with old colonial houses, interspersed with more traditional Laotian buildings such as the temples and royal buildings. 

Laos only opened it’s doors to tourism in 1989 and – sat in a European-style coffee shop sipping iced lattes from glass jars – we reflected on the journey that Luang Prabang must have taken within our lifetime. I imagine the wary welcome of the first trickle of intrepid travelers in the late 80’s was a world away from the slightly more polished reception that we experienced – the pace of change in the last 30 years must have been quite a challenge.

As the city grows to accommodate the influx of tourists, it expands outwards from the peninsula to the south and east. Previously most of the tourism stemmed from the backpacker trail, but now there are ample guesthouses and hotels ready to satisfy more affluent customers and our hotel manager told us that learning English was the best way to guarantee a good job here.

The charm of Luang Prabang flows from it’s unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage; imagine grand French colonial villas with wooden-shuttered windows and pastel-coloured pebbledash, sitting side-by-side with gleaming gold and burgundy Buddhist temples. The streets are mouthfuls of ‘s’ and ‘p’ – Phou Si, Sisavangyong, Samsenthai, Phamahapasam – and the delicious smell of spicy smoke drifts from charcoal grills at the front of shops and homes. 

Since being awarded UNESCO protected status in 1995 development in the city has been regulated by a strict building code, meaning that the original buildings can be hard to distinguish from the architecturally-sympathetic newcomers; this has helped Luang Prabang to avoid the unfortunate homogenization which developing Asian cities are so susceptible to.

 

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This is the first photo I took in Luang Prabang and it really captures the place for me; a swarm of scooters buzzing down sun-baked roads, through clouds of smoke drifting from roadside grills.

By day…

The streets in town are filled with guest-houses, massage-parlors, restaurants and french-style cafes street. It’s nice to cycle around as the majority of traffic is two-wheeled rather than four, although the bikes we borrowed from our hotel had seen better days and so we did more stopping to drink coffee/beer than we did actual cycling.

Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of Laos and the surrounding region until King Sisavangyong moved the seat to Vientiane in 1545, and some of the grander buildings are an echo of this provenance; however, the city has also seen more than it’s share of turbulence. Towards the end of the 19th Century it was ransacked by successive Burmese invasions, providing a prime opportunity for the French to sweep in and pick up the pieces, supporting renovations and ushering in Luang Prabang’s ‘French period’.

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A rare photo of Matt on a bike!

 

Buddhism is the main religion here and deeply permeates the Laotian culture. Each morning as dawn breaks over the city, a line of locals wait patiently on their knees to offer ‘alms’ – gifts in the form of rice snacks, fresh fruit and traditional sweets – to the 200-or-so Buddhist monks in a traditional ritual which dates back to the 14th Century. The alms giving starts along Sisavangvong road and then radiates out to the adjoining side streets.

This scared and peaceful ceremony is obviously novel to us Westeners and so it’s unsurprising that tourists flock to watch or take part. After discussion we chose not to go (aside from that fact that I’m grumpy if I have to get up too early, we also felt that the ceremony was for the local Buddhist people, rather than for our benefit); however, for around $5 your hotel or a tour operator will help you to participate in a respectful way.

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We saw lots of women and young girls selling bright orange flowers on the streetside. These arrangements are given as offerings at Buddhist shrines.
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Rice patties drying in the sun.
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The orange flower arrangements, studded with smoldering incense sticks, left as an offering at one of the temples.

Wat Xieng Thong

As a Buddhist city in South East Asia, we expected there to be a few temples dotted here and there, although if you’d have asked us how many there were in Luang Prabang I’m certain we would have underestimated. There are 33 Wats (temples) in total, and you hardly walk a few meters without passing one!

16th-century Wat Xieng Thong, off Sisavangvong road towards the far end of the peninsula, is the coronation place of the Lao kings, and also an important gathering place for annual festivities. Truly beautiful, it was described by Auguste Pavie, the first French vice-consul in Luang Prabang, as “famous for its sloping curved roof with three levels overlapping one another, as if it were an immense bird preparing to fly”.

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The back wall of Wat Xieng Thong features a dazzling ‘tree of life’ mosaic.
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No matter how often I see people posing on one leg, I still don’t understand why they do it?! Something tells me that this guy spends a lot of his life crouched down squinting into a camera lens.

Lhai Heua Fa:, Festival of the Boats of Light

Unbeknownst to us when we booked our flights our time in Laos coincided with the build-up to ‘Boun Ork Phansa’, the last day of Buddhist lent which is celebrated by festive celebrations steeped in tradition. During the day donations and offerings are given at the local temples, and in the evening candlelight processions are held. In Luang Prabang the celebration is most spectacular – hundreds of brightly coloured dragon-shaped boats floats decorated with flowers, incense and candles are set adrift down the Mekong river, to pay respect to the Buddha and give thanks to the river spirits. These boats also symbolise the bad luck from the previous year being swept away, allowing the good luck to flow in. In addition to the big dragons, families make their own small boats from banana leaves and say a prayer at the side of the river before lighting the candle and sending the boat on it’s way.

The consequence of us not knowing about this festival beforehand was that we didn’t coincide our stay with it, and left a couple of days before it took place. The boats were already shaping up though!

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This guy was toiling away under the shade of one of the temples we visited.
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These guys have tried to hide their dragon boat behind this tree. It’s not been entirely effective.
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As we left Luang Prabang, just days before the festival, the lovely people at our hotel were making some good progress on their boat.

And by night…

As the sun sets over the city, a transformation takes place on Sisavangvong Road. From the Post Office roundabout to the Royal Palace, the wide street bisects into back-to-back stalls; brightly coloured merchandise stacked and spilling from the plastic sheets spread along the ground (more of these sheets are deftly hung overhead at the first spots of rain, creating a bazaar-type environment).

 

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Market vendors start to lay out their goods as the sun begins to set over the town.
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Many of the stall-keepers were women, often with small children strapped to their backs or playing quietly.
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On this occasion we dashed through the stalls with our bikes before the ‘roof’ of plastic sheets blocked our path.
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The market begins at the roundabout opposite the Post Office, and here you can find lots of food stalls like this one.
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Women carry baskets and buckets of food through the market, selling to other women manning the street stalls.

The market unfurls each night and underneath the tarpaulin sheets a small community comes to life – the vendors huddle together to slurp noodle soup, share snacks, and entertain small children, occasionally unfolding some of the fabrics and typing the price into a small calculator (this is partly to help communicate to foreign tourists, but also because the exchange rate to the Lao Kip can take some getting used to – 1GBP is about 11,000 Kip, 1USD around 9,000).

The market offers a vibrant miscellany of goods, from traditional hand-made crafts (silk scarves, cloth bags, carved wooden bowls and ornaments, embroidered story-books and childrens toys) to mass-produced backpacker essentials (the obligatory BeerLao t-shirts and elephant-print trousers). You can also buy locally-produced teas, coffee, spices and corked bottles of Lao Lao (the Lao whisky I mentioned in my last blog). The stalls are repetitive (not unusual for an Asian market), but this is one of the best ones I’ve come across – not least for the fact that you don’t feel harassed as you walk around; they seem to be happy with window-shopping.

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When the time came for us to leave Luang Prabang I definitely had that pang of “do we have to go?” that accompanies the end of any good holiday, but at the same time we were excited to be moving onto our next destination, having had an encouraging start to the trip.

It didn’t take long for this excitement to be somewhat dampened, when our hotel manager – as he drove us to the airport – inquired as to where we were going next and replied “oh” (in a tone that was somewhere on the spectrum between surprise and disappointment) when we said ‘Vientiane’. He continued: “I studied in Vientiane, but…. I much prefer it here. We have some rooms left if you’d prefer to stay?” We smiled at this, taking it as a polite effort to tempt our continued custom… although in hindsight it was perhaps an option we should have considered more seriously.

If you’re planning to visit Laos, I wholeheartedly recommend that you head to Luang Prabang and spend a good few days soaking it up. It’s the kind of place where you can ‘do all the attractions’ in a short period of time, but there’s such a nice atmosphere in and around and it’s worth staying on a bit longer to make the most of that.

– Emma

 

Tuk Tuks and Riverboats in Luang Prabang, Laos

After a good 24 hours relaxing into holiday-mode, we decided to book a day-trip to cover some of the key local attractions. The main street is choc-full of tour providers offering an exhausting variety of excursions, but most included elephant riding which Matt and I strongly disagree with so instead we hired private transport – in the form of tuk-tuk and riverboat drivers – and ‘DIY’d’ a tour to the Kuang Si Waterfall and the Pak Oh Buddha Caves, via the Lao Whisky Village.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Our first destination – Kuang Si waterfall – was 29km south of the centre of Luang Prabang; in practical terms, this equated to an hour bumping around in the back of a tuk-tuk over dirt roads dented with gravelly craters, teeth chattering as we clattered over creaky wooden bridges (more fun than it might sound!). Through the dust clouds in our wake we saw lazy buffalo, scrawny chickens, goats, dogs and people performing odd-jobs such as bundling wood or pruning trees. In the background, green as far as the eye could see.

As we approached the entrance to the falls the roadside around us sprung to life with sizzling racks of BBQ meat, towers of fresh young coconut and row after row of ubiquitous elephant-print trousers.

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To enter the waterfall area we paid the nominal 20,000 Kip (1.80gbp) admission fee to a girl in a kiosk in exchange for a ticket which we promptly handed to a guy sat less than 2 meters away, then started up a mud-track under a shady canopy of dense trees. Almost immediately – and quite unexpectedly – we came across an enclosure of black bears snoozing atop wooden towers (I’ll come back to this) and shortly afterwards reached the bottom tier of the waterfall – a paradisaical pool of glacier blue water which, quite honestly, blew me away.

You see, I’d managed my expectations so well before we arrived (seen one waterfall, seen them all right?) and convinced myself so conclusively that the promo photos would have been diligently photoshopped by the Laos Tourisism marketing department (water can’t be that blue, right?) that I completely and utterly underestimated the place. It was genuinely incredible!

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When I’d recovered from my initial shock (and taken 800-or-so photos) we continued to follow the path past successive pools of milky turquoise until we arrived at the source – a 50m vertical drop of frothy white water, crashing against the limestone rocks*. Having arrived early, we were fortunate enough to be among the first visitors of the day and got some great shots before taking a dip.

* nerdy fact – the limestone is what causes the water to be that insane blue colour.

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Despite the ‘no jumping’ signs, I couldn’t resist! The water was deliciously cold and the perfect antidote to the already hot Laotian morning.

Back to the bears…

The enclosure that we passed near the entrance to the falls is a sanctuary funded by ‘Free the Bears’, which is home to 23 Asiatic Black ‘Moon’ bears. Most have been rescued from the ironically sickening ‘traditional medicine’ trade, which saw them kept in suffocatingly small metal cages, unable to move, with a catheter inserted directly into their gall bladder to remove the bile – a substance which has been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries.

The rescued bears looked quite content in their new home; the larger bears were lazing around on the high towers of a huge jungle-gym, and the younger ones were play-fighting and eating chunks of pineapple.

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Save the Bears do some brilliant work supporting environmental education projects, and working with governments and local police forces to protect bears around the world.

Although the sanctuary sits in the Kuang Si Falls park it sadly doesn’t benefit from the admission fee so they rely on donations of people passing through, and they sell soft toys and t-shirts to raise funds.

Xanghai ‘Whisky’ Village

After visiting the waterfall we headed back to town, grabbed some lunch and then traded our tuk-tuk for a narrow wooden riverboat. In the welcome shade of the boat’s canopy we zipped along the milky-brown waters of the Mekong, passing grandiose villas which neighbored corrugated iron shacks, amidst towering palm trees and lush forest.

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We passed so many groups of kids playing in the water near the riverbanks; most shrieked and waved when we went by, but these boys seemed more interested in burying back into the earth!
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Another riverboat (similar to ours), against the mountainous backdrop.

After an hour-or-so our driver docked to a wedge of bamboo connected to a flight of rudimentary steps which led us up the riverbank to Xanghai Village – otherwise known as the ‘Whisky Village’.

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Matt and I are huge Scotch whisky fanatics (to the extent that our first holiday together was a distillery-crawl around Islay, and a bottle of Ardbeg 10yr old was tucked away in our luggage for this holiday). At the slightest whisper of the ‘W’ word our ears prick up and our noses scout for signs of peat, so we were looking forward to learning a bit about how ‘Lao Lao’ whisky was produced and maybe getting to sample a cask or two. However, we very quickly learned that ‘whisky’ is interpreted a bit differently in Laos.

At the top of the riverbank a young girl standing by a trestle table laden with glass bottles of various concoctions (some which contained snakes or scorpians or other insects) offered us a drop of purple liquid – sans snake – in a shot glass. It tasted a bit like sweet blackcurrant grappa and not in the slightest like any whisky I’ve encountered before, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The sign below told us everything else we (apparently) needed to know, although failed to explain at what point the poor reptiles were jammed in there – a peculiarity which made me feel a bit queasy, physically and morally.

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The rest of the village showed little sign of whisky… but lots of signs of weaving. Actually, ‘Weaving Village’ would have been more a appropriate monkier (if less enticing!). For 20 minutes we wandered around the small village in the searing heat, a little bemused, politely declining invitations to purchase scarves and blankets.

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Lots of weaving, not much whisky!
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We came across a beautiful temple in the centre of the small town, and there appeared to be some kind of celebration going on with loud music and singing.

Between us we know quite a bit about whisky – both at the production and the consumption end – and while we acknowledge this wasn’t whiskey proper, it also didn’t have enough on show to interest booze enthusiasts. If you are planning to visit Xanghai to see how LaoLao is produced, I’d suggest you avoid it; however, you want to buy some reasonably priced woven goods and see the ladies of the village making it outside their homes, this is probably a good place to stop off!

Pak Oh Buddha Caves

Back on the boat, we zipped along for an hour before docking to a second bamboo deck, above which a whitewashed staircase carved into a limestone cliff signaled our arrival at the Pak Oh Buddah caves. At the bottom of the staircase we handed 40,000 kip to a young guy perched under an umbrella, then climbed the 10-or-so steps into the cave. After the ancillary business of lighting the some incense sticks and wedging them into a pile of ash (another 10,000 Kip “to support the restoration of the caves”), we took stock of our surroundings.

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The cave was small and damp and a blanket of Buddhas camouflaged each horizontal surface. Some were as small as my thumb, others were around waist height; some gleamed gold and others decades old, rusty and crumbling; all were covered in a dust of undisturbed cobwebs. The air was still and cool like a chapel and the entrance to the cave formed a beautiful jagged frame of the river.

A notice explained that while local people had used the caves to worship river spirits since the 8th Century, the Buddha statues only started to accrue much later when Buddhism was adopted by the Royal families of Lao having spread from the West in the 16th Century. From that time until 1975, the King and the people of Luang Prabang made an annual pilgrimage to the caves as part of their New Year religious celebrations and commissioned artisans to create sculptures which they entrusted to the cave.

Given the popularity of this place (the caves feature on almost every Mekong River excursion), I had expected to find something quite grand and breathtaking. Instead, I found myself asking Matt: “is this it? Really? It can’t be, can it?!”.

While the cave had an certain natural beauty and the devoted compilation of Buddhas was sweet, it didn’t really blow me away. On reflection, it probably didn’t help that we recently visited the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, which kind of raises your expectations when it comes to large-scale statue collections!

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After snapping a few photos we climbed back down the steep white staircase and only then saw a sign pointing to a second cave and a second set of steps (I counted 238, although regular interruptions by small children with puppy-dog eyes selling painted snail-shells and sticks of sugarcane may mean that I’m a step-or-two out).

Gasping we reached the second cave, the entrance to which was blocked aside from a small gate. This absence of natural light created a stellar opportunity for the entrepreneurial young girl who sat outside renting torches for a dollar; by this point we were fed up of people trying to sell us things so made do with the iPhone torch and flash photography, but if you don’t like the dark I recommend you suck it up and hire a torch as it really is pitch black inside!.

There were relatively few statues in this cave compared to the one below and it was a bit underwhelming, but it felt good to get some exercise in!

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Post-trip reflections on the caves: If I’d spent 2 hours in a tuk-tuk to get there then I think I’d have been disappointed with what we found; however, the breezy boat ride along the Mekong was such a pleasurable experience that it became the main event and we credited the cave visit as an added extra, an opportunity to stretch our legs and get a deeper insight into what makes this place tick.

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For me this day was one of the highlights of our Laos-Cambodia trip; the Kuang Si waterfall was unlike anything I’ve experienced before; in fact, we made a return visit before we left LP…

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One more blog on LP to come (I tried and failed to keep it to two posts!)

– Emma

Escaping to Laos for Golden Week

Over the last 3-4 months Matt and I have sweated our way through our second Shanghai summer – a particularly brutal one this year where week after week the temperature soared and the damp air seeped into our skin, clothes and everything we touched (imagine an open-air sauna and you won’t be far off). During this time China clocked a couple of record high days, which disgruntled the locals as well as the expats!

For a pair of pallid Brits, nostalgic for summers hallmarked by the transient damp of English drizzle followed by brisk winds and a few treasured rays of sunshine, the inescapable sticky heat combined with air-con-induced pollution proved exhausting. Having said that, we did agree that while last summer (our first in Shanghai) had been a literal shock to our British systems, we both felt more prepared for it this year and therefore more comfortable.

Making travel plans

With China’s ‘Golden Week’ (I wrote about this last year) approaching and our tanks grumbling on empty, our thoughts drifted to holiday planning and on a rainy Saturday afternoon we sat down in front of a world map and circled the places we simply had to visit before we repatriate to the UK.

We made a good effort to explore the China mainland during the first half of our assignment, so for our remaining 18 months (yes, we’re half-way through!) we decided to see a bit more of SE Asia. Listing the countries we wanted to visit was the easy bit. Narrowing the list to one that could be realistically accomplished given our annual leave allowance was a bit harder. Scheduling these trips around South-East Asia’s lengthy monsoon seasons was nigh impossible!* Nevertheless, 5 hours (and a few glasses of wine) later we had cracked it, and quickly booked our next adventure: Golden Week in Laos (Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap).

* Coincidentally, October is a great time to travel in mainland China from a weather perspective as the days are cooler and generally dry but it can be extremely expensive and busy if your trip coincides with a Chinese national holiday. This also applies to Japan and Korea, which are popular destinations for Chinese tourists.

From Shanghai to Luang Prabang

Fast forward a few weeks and we were ready to start the first leg of our journey: Luang Prabang in northern Laos. As our flight descended, we caught our first glimpses of the Laotian countryside; a patchwork of luscious wild forest cast over sculpted dunes and valleys, a kaleidoscope of green from luminous lime to and shadowy-green-grey, which mirrored the drifts of thick white cloud above.

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Fortunately, we exited the plane to scorching heat – not a sign of the thunderous downpour which our weather apps had foretold.

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Brilliant blue skies!

After a bit of a chore clearing the entry/ visa processes at the airport we transferred to our hotel, lapped up the complementary mango drizzled in honey (yum), dropped our cases and walked into town to orientate ourselves – just in time for sunset.

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To get into the main part of Luang Prabang town we needed to cross over the Nam Khan river and did so via the ‘bicycle and motorcycle bridge’ (well, via some weather-beaten wooden planks tacked on to the bridge, which creaked and swayed under our weight; my heart was in my mouth the whole time!)
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A Laos tuk-tuk, brightly coloured and omnipresent. As we walk past, the drivers stir to life and call out ”tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk” – it was the soundtrack to our time in Laos and Cambodia!
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An incredible sunset over the Mekong river, which caught us off-guard as we were wandering around deciding where to eat dinner.
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Riverboats moored up along the banks of the Mekong, shimmering like sardines in the fading sunlight. No filter required.

Climbing the Dragon Staircase on Mount Phousi

We had read that the sunset in Luang Prabang was best seen from the 360-degree vantage point of Mount Phousi,  so the following evening as the heat of the day began to wane we began our ascent via the 328 steep stone steps in the belly of a snaking white and gold dragon. Although the temperature had dipped a fraction, the 150m climb meant we were soaked with sweat within 60 seconds, in sticky camaraderie with our many fellow climbers.

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Mt. Phousi is located opposite the Luang Prabang National Museum in the centre of town and you can get some cracking panoramas on the way up to the top.

Halfway up the hill we were met by a band of brilliant-gold Buddhas – half-concealed in a grotto of stone and trees – and just after this we passed a white-walled monastery, home to orange-robed monks going about their business. 

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Huge reclining Buddha statue half-way up Mt PhouSi.

At the top of the hill we found the gilded stupa of Wat Chomsi, which was built in 1804 and is still an active place of worship – Luang Prabang is the former Royal capital of Laos, and still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning.

Unfortunately, trying to scout a clear view was like was like the hunt for a 16″ shirt at the Next sale on Boxing Day. We didn’t fancy our chances of success among the swarm of people scrabbling for a prime selfie-taking position (plus, can a sunset still be enjoyed while drowning in a sweaty sea of elbows and i-phones?) so we took a few pre-sunset snaps and headed back down, happily perched in a bar with wine-in-hand by the time it turned dark.

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Although we didn’t stay for the main event, the pre-sunset vista was pretty spectacular.
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Evidently, everyone visiting Luang Prabang had read the same guidebook tip!

I’d never heard of Luang Prabang before researching this trip to Laos (yes, I know I say this about almost everywhere we visit!), but within a few hours I had fallen head over heels in love with the place. More to come!

Emma

ZhāngJiāJiè and Wulingyuan National Park, China

This blog covers the final part of a four-city trip which Matt and I took with my parents earlier this year, starting in Shanghai then in turn visiting Beijing, Pingyao, Xi’an and Zhangjiajie. I’m a bit embarrassed that it’s taken me 5 months to complete this series of blogs, but time runs away with you in this tenacious city (especially when you spend most of that time at work!). Actually, we’re creeping up to to the mid-point of our 3-year work assignment which is at the end of October… a significant milestone. I’ve suggested Matt writes a blog on ‘What we’ve learnt in these 18 months’ but he seems to prefer writing about intestines and feet so maybe I’ll do that one.

So, Zhāngjiājiè ( 张家界)On a recognition spectrum whereby Beijing is 10 and Pingyao is 1,  I would guess that this prefecture-level city in Húnán Province sits somewhere around 4. Every Chinese person I’ve spoken to knows of it (or at least they do once we’ve gotten past the total confusion of them trying to decipher ‘Zhangjiajie’ once it’s been through the mangle that is my best tonal mandarin), and many have been there. British people on the other hand will have likely never heard of it. Case in point: my parents, when I told them that it would be the fourth stop on our China tour.

Zhangjiajie is around 12,000km as the crow flies west from Shanghai. When visiting this area, you can choose to stay in Zhangjiajie city itself, or inside/close to the Wulingyuan National Park (which, fyi, is what people are actually referring to when they talk about going to Zhangjiajie). We decided on the latter.

No.5 Valley Inn

Nestled deep in the mountains and only 2km from the entrance to the Wulingyuan park, to reach the No.5 Valley Inn we faced a 50 minute off-road car ride from the airport. Uncomfortable: yes. Scary: a little (especially as it was dark). Worth the bruises and residual carsickness: absolutely!

In the light of the next morning, we discovered that the Inn is actually a number of individual wood-and-stone buildings varying in size which are clustered around a central hub housing the bar and reception. We stayed in the building below, which had a number of private bedrooms over two floors and a communal living space-come-dining area, looked after by a dedicated ayi (housemaid/ cook).

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After 9 days traversing Beijing, Pingyao and Xian, absorbing all the commanding history and arresting architecture that China could offer us (invariably in the company of teeming crowds of fellow tourists), the clean and quiet surroundings of No5 Valley Inn had an almost tranquilizing effect. In fact, while Matt and my parents ventured out to explore, I spent the morning dozing in bed, drinking herbal tea and feeling generally contented!

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In addition to the larger communal buildings there were also some private lodges, a KTV bar and an outdoor swimming pool. Venturing a little further in the grounds, we came across a wooden walkway which wound down the hillside, cutting through green terraced fields, muddy ponds and fields of tiny yellow and pink flowers: it was pretty magical.

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One other thing I really enjoyed about staying here was the evening meals. As I mentioned earlier, each residence had a dedicated ayi who rustled up a delicious dinner made from fresh locally-grown produce, for anyone who happened to be around in the evening. We were served rustic Hunanese food, though with the chilli and offal toned down a bit for our foreign palates! Each night was different, but usually we had a selection of preserved pork, beef, goose or tofu, cooked in the local style (spicy and salty), with a variety of local fresh vegetable dishes such as lotus root, eggplant etc. All washed down with a potent home-made rice wine which ensured the conversation flowed between strangers who soon became friends.

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The white and blue bottle you can see on the table, we had bought in Xi’an. It was a kind of flower-rice-wine and was delicious! On this evening we were joined by a couple from America who were great company!
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The ayi in our building was very impressed with Matt’s efforts to speak Chinese – aided by translation apps they were chatting for ages and the other ayis all joined in!

Okay, I think I’ve confessed my love for this place enough(!). Moving on to the real reason we came to visit Zhangjiajie…

Wulingyuan National Park

A quick online search for the ‘must-see’ attractions in Zhangjiajie will tell you there are three big ones: Wulingyuan National Park, Tianmen Mountain the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge. A word of warning here… these are not exactly in close proximity to each other! and so we only ticked off one out of the three (Wulingyuan) while we were there.

A 4-day pass to the park costs 248 rmb (around £28) and includes internal shuttle bus rides (hop-on-hop-off) throughout the park. These buses are essential given there is a lot of park to cover; 690 square km of forest, rivers, valleys, pathways and caves, not to mention some 243 peaks and over 3000 craggy quartz-sandstone towers, which have formed over the last 380 million years, each one wonderfully unique. Matt and I found the park so big that – even with a map – it was all too easy to hop on a bus and find yourself literally miles in the wrong direction! This could be a bit frustrating given that there weren’t many English signs and even less English speakers, but luckily we always managed to find our way back to the start point!

At certain times of year, the damp and humid climate cloaks the mountains in a dense mist, which is certainly beautiful (and has inspired Chinese artists for centuries) but it did make taking photos a challenge (I have lots of photos of cloud!). I’ve included some of my favourites below, but they don’t really do it justice; if you search online for Zhangjiajie you’ll see the landscape in other seasons.

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Precipitous tree-topped peaks, shrouded in infamous Zhangjiajie mist.

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If the tree-topped sandstone pillars look familiar, it might be because they inspired the vertiginously suspended forest landscape of the fictional moon ‘Pandora’, from the 2009 sci-fi movie Avatar:

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The floating ‘Hallelujah Mountains’ in Avatar were inspired by the Heavenly Pillar peaks in the Wulingyuan National Park (above image courtesy of Pinterest.com) and some of the film was shot in this location. FYI, we didn’t see any dragons or blue people.

If you have been following the blog for a while, you may remember that when Matt and I visited Shangri-La last year we discovered that the city was originally called something along the lines of ‘Middle Yak Meadow’ (in Chinese, obviously), and was only given it’s new, decidedly more exotic name in 2001 to promote tourism. The same thing happened to Zhangjiajie, which was known as Dayong (大庸) until 1994, when the name was changed to give it more prominence befitting it’s recently acquired UNESCO protected status. Likewise, some of the mountains have been renamed since James Cameron’s film, to reflect the names of the Pandora region.

The Padlock Zone (“For Longevity”)

Today more than 20 million visitors come to Zhangjiajie each year to see the famous Avatar mountains, therefore crowds were inevitable (mainly Chinese tourists, in loud and conspicuous organised tour groups). Unsurprisingly, the area dedicated to tying bright red ribbons around the trees and latching golden padlocks to the fencing was particularly popular… for longevity,  you understand.

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“Tourism Etiquette Rules for Chinese Citizens”

The huge numbers of tourists have apparently prompted the park’s Lǎobǎn (bosses) to sit down and consider what exemplary tourist behaviour looks like, and subsequently engrave a set of guidelines into a large, stone sign at one of the busier park attractions. Matt and I stumbled across this, and must have stood there for 10 minutes reading every line (it took a while, what with all the giggling). We couldn’t get all of its magnificence into a single photo so I’ve transcribed it here. This is honestly one of the best thing’s i’ve read in China in my life:

The cultivation of a congenial and harmonious travel environment benefits every tourist. It is our bounden to be a tourist with refined manners! So please observe the following tourism etiquette rules:

  1. Keep the environment clean and tidy. Don’t spit about or spit out chewing gum. Don’t drop litter. don’t smoke except in designated areas.
  2. Observe public order. Don’t yell or shout out loud. Always join a public queue for good order. Don’t walk abreast on a sidewalk. Don’t talk loudly in public.
  3. Preserve the ecological environment. Stay off public lawns and refrain from picking flowers or fruits. Don’t chase, catch or throw stones at animals or feed them irresponsibly.
  4. Protect historical sites and cultural relics. Don’t inscribe anything or scrawl graffiti on them. Don’t touch or climb on top of ancient relics and heed the restrictions when taking photos of them.
  5. Be careful with the use of public facilities. Don’t smear or break objects in hotel rooms. Don’t vandalize or damage public facilities. Don’t attempt to make off with public belongings. Conserve water and electricity by using them effectively and don’t waste food.
  6. Be respectful to the people around you. Don’t try to snapshot pictures of foreign friends without their permission. Don’t sneeze into the face of others. Don’t occupay public facilities for long. Esteem the work of service staff. And respect the local religious customs.
  7. Show courtesy to others. Be dressed appropriately. Don’t go barebacked in public places. Be considerate towards the aged, the infirm, the sick and the disabled and give priority to them. Be chivalrous to the female by following the rule “lady first”. Never use vulgar language.
  8. Take part in healthy environments. Say no to feudal superstitious activities. Stay away from pornography, gambling and drugs.

Told you. Brilliant! We didn’t see anyone else reading the sign so you do wonder at it’s efficacy… however, during our time in the park I can confirm that no-one sneezed in my face or threw stones at animals, so maybe it’s having an effect.

Speaking of animals, the park is home to hundreds of protected macaque monkeys who were bold enough to get quite close. I’m guessing that some less than joyful interactions with between over-curious visitors/monkeys were behind the large signs exclaiming: “Wild monkey infesting area, Caution! Do not tease feeding the monkeys”

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Wild macaque monkey

The Golden Whip Stream

On our last day in Zhangjiajie, Matt and I took a walk along the Golden Whip Stream. I think we were incredibly lucky – the weather was damp and drizzly so we had the place largely to ourselves. The stream meanders through verdant forest, polishing the bed of stones and rocky boulders as it flows towards the Li river. We walked for miles and miles, only stopping to buy snacks from some of the vendors which crop up en-route.

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A bridge over the Golden Whip Stream. And Matt.

Despite the muggy weather, I did get a few cool shots and I’m particularly proud of the series below, taken along the Golden Whip Stream. The almost-bare branches of overhead trees against the murky fog took me back to biology class, in their eerie resemblance to the internal structures of the lung; the remaining leaves like the alveoli at the ends of the respiratory tree.

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“Take the Bailong Lift, for viewing the Forty-Eight General Rocks”

We had read about the Bailong elevator – a glass lift built into the mountain with a vertical elevation of 335m – before our trip to Zhangjiajie, and planned to give it a go as apparently the views going up are spectacular and you can walk along the ridge of the mountain at the top. However, you can see from the photo below that we wouldn’t have seen much! The same applied to several of the other higher attractions (such as a McDonald’s at the top of one of the mountains); in cloudy weather we were better off staying at ground level and enjoying the atmosphere.

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Huangshi Village

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Despite having spent a couple of days exploring the mountain area, in the end, we didn’t climb Mount Huangshizhai or reach Mount Huangshi Village. Unfortunately for us, it seems that in neglecting to do so means that we have not visited Zhangjiajie after all… at least if the signs around the park (copied below) are to be believed! So, maybe rely on another blog when planning your visit?

“He who fails to climb on Mount Huangshizhai need not have come to Zhangjiajie”

“Not getting to Mount Huangshi Village means not having really been to Zhangjiajie”

“It is no avail of your trip to Zhangjiajie, unless you come to the summit of Mount Huangshi Village”

– Emma

Xī’ān-tics

When planning a visit to China, before you even pick up a guidebook, I imagine there are 3 or 4 attractions on your ‘must visit’ list; those places of cultural and historical significance that are so familiar that you almost feel you’ve been! I bet the Terracotta Army is pretty high up on that list, right? And it’s the ‘Terracotta Army’, you think of when you hear ‘Xī’ān’?

Xī’ān (西安) – the capital of Shaanxi province – is a place so inextricably linked with Emperor Qin ShiHuang’s subterranian Army of Warriors that I’d never actually considered the city in it’s own right, that is, until I arrived there earlier this year and discovered that there was much more to Xī’ān than first meets the eye.

A developing city

It was late on a Monday evening when our train arrived into Xī’ān, but the subway was still running so we clambered aboard and got off at a stop close to the Bell Tower, which was then a 10 minute walk to our hotel.

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Xī’ān Bell Tower at night

At the time of our visit (April 2017) there were only two subway lines in full operation, bisecting the city from North to South and East to West. However, a further 5 were under construction (part of Line 3 opened to the public in November 2016), and plans show that there will be 17 lines by 2030. This subway strategy paints a clear picture of how Xī’ān, along with many of China’s thriving Tier 2 cities*, is lunging from the ancient into the modern world at breakneck speed.

The same pace of development is apparent above-ground in the myriad of modern buildings and lively leisure and retail areas (our hotel, for example, was the epitome of modern; clean lines, mood lighting and an oversized lobby), yet evidence of ancient Xī’ān still surrounds (literally) the city; the Ming-Era architecture and dynastic elements clearly surviving in the face of creeping modernity.

Xī’ān is said to be one of the birthplaces of ancient Chinese civilisation; then known as Cháng’ān, meaning ‘eternal city’. It was the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road (a network of trade routes established during the Han Dynasty linking regions of the ancient world – from China to Europe – in commerce) and was crowned as the cultural and political capital city during some of the most important important dynasties during China’s history.

* This website has the best explanation of China’s tiered city system that I have come across.

Day 1: Xī’ān City Walls

Built over 600 years ago to protect the city (and it’s merchants and money!), Xī’ān’s rectangular city walls (西安城墙) remain intact, stretching 13.7km around the city centre. Along the top of the wall is a wide stone-paved walkway and if you like you can walk the entire circumference. You can also rent a bike near the South Gate, which is probably a better idea if you want to go the whole way around – it’s quite a way! We walked for about an hour before getting hungry and heading off to find some lunch.

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The hazy atmosphere obscured the horizon in every direction, which in a surreal way seemed to enhance the colours and features at the point where I stood – particularly the pops of bright red; fluttering flags, classic lanterns, and the blooming full skirt of a wedding dress. The houses and buildings which bordered the wall were beautiful; very traditional and elegant.

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The Muslim Quarter & Bei Yuan Men Street

Warning: don't read this if you're hungry!

During my research for our trip I came across a blogger who had written a three-part ‘Gourmet Guide to Xī’ān’, describing in detail his favourite street-foods and where to find them. His blog warned that some of the food, however delicious, could be challenging for Westerners due to the lack of English (or even pinyin) signage and menus, and so helpfully included step-by-step guides of how to order and eat the dishes. The more I read the more excited I became about this sublime clash of Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisine, cooked and served up on the side of the street. I started to obsess over one dish in particular; Yang Rou Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍) – a steaming hot mutton broth ladled over hand-crumbled unleavened bread. Our lunch target was set.

Entering BeiYuanMen street was a fairground for the senses! Hungry crowds hustled and bustled past street stalls and restaurants which steamed, sizzled and hissed, releasing mouth-watering aromas of char-grilled lamb, freshly baked bread and earthy spices. Large signs painted red or blue brandished orderly rows of Chinese characters, which we had no chance to understand; however, we soon came across a friendly-looking place boasting row upon row of skewered meats ready for the grill; after a quick check that they served Pao Mo, we took a seat inside.

Thanks to the blog I mentioned earlier, when the fúwùyuán (waiter) presented me with an empty bowl and a piece of hard dry white bread, I didn’t start sobbing like a hungry Dickensian workhouse orphan. Instead, I crumbled the piece of bread into my bowl like a pro (harder than it sounds by the way!) and handed it back to our fúwùyuán who submerged it in a clear broth which contained the lamb, veggies, and glass noodles. Soaked in the broth, the bread transformed into little gnocchi-like dough balls – just the right side of chewy – which we ate with sweet pickled garlic and spicy chilli paste.

In addition to the Pao Mo we ordered a few BBQ lamb skewers marinated in cumin and chilli, crisp, a slightly chewy disc of bread and some cartons of plum juice to wash it down (pics below).

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The Muslim quarter has two main streets which together form an ‘L’ shape, and splinter off into a myriad of smaller interconnected alleyways which are dominated by street-food or souvenir vendors. It would guess it takes around an hour to meander up and down the main streets (hard to say exactly, what with all the stopping to eat!), but you could easily spend the best part of a day wandering around this place, cursing the feeble and finite capacity of your stomach.

After gorging on Yang Rou Pao Mo I was well and truly stuffed, so had to make do with taking photos of the cornucopia of other foods on offer. One of the most popular snacks we came across was Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍) or ‘Chinese burger’: slow-cooked mutton or lamb stuffed into a fluffy wheat pitta and slathered with spicy gravy… if you want to get your hands on one of these, be prepared to queue!

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A special shout-out to the drinkable yoghurt, which you slurp through a straw – yum.

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Wandering past the food stalls in the Muslim Quarter, tasting things here and there, I felt a strong sense of contentment, similar to that which I felt at the Mercato San Lorenzo in Florence and La Boqueria in Barcelona. Despite the throngs of tourists, these places manage to maintain an authentic character and true passion for good food. You seriously can’t beat it.

Some more pics below; I love the ones of my mum absorbed into the crowd. And see if you can spot Matt!

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The Great Mosque of Xī’ān

After lunch we decided to take a look around the Great Mosque (西安大清真寺), also located in the Muslim Quarter. Originally built in the early Ming Dynasty, the mosque is a walled complex of five interlinked courtyards which is still used as a place of worship by Xī’ān’s Chinese Muslim population. After the chaotic street-food area, the mosque was an delicious pocket of calm – although the fusion of traditional China and the Middle East which we experienced in BeiYuanMen street was also present here, for example in the Chinese and Arabic calligraphy which appears throughout the complex.

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I’m a sucker for cherry blossom, and the blossom trees in the grounds of the mosque with their juicy pink petals were the most beautiful I have ever seen. The bees seemed to agree with me!

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The mosque was our final stop on our first day in Xī’ān, and we then made our way back to the hotel picking up a few souvenirs on the way.

Day 2: That Army

Imagine it’s spring in 1974 and you are a local peasant farmer digging a well deep into the dry suburban earth of your hometown, 40km outside of the city of Xī’ān. Now, imagine your tools hit an object that doesn’t sound or feel like either earth or rock so you carefully excavate around it, feeding your curiosity, until you expose the statue of a life-size soldier, poised for battle in his full armor. Then imagine being told that you’ve uncovered the burial place of Qin ShiHuang, China’s first emperor – one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century, later to be classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you weren’t popular with the ladies before, you are now, right?!

The Terracotta Army (兵马俑 – literally: “Soldier-and-horse funerary statues”) are a collection of more than 6,000 life-size clay soldiers, along with numerous horses and chariots, built to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin, and accompany him into the afterlife. The mausoleum remained hidden, interred for more than 2,200 years after his death, until that chance finding just over 40 years ago.

The Museum of the Terracotta Army, constructed around the discovery site, was opened in 1979. We initially planned to DIY the visit and catch a local bus from the city centre to the Museum, but bumped into a tour group in the foyer of our hotel and were seduced by a good price and transfer of responsibility for logistics! So hopped into a mini-bus for the hour-or-so drive. At the Museum our guide distributed headsets so we could hear her over the dense, chattering crowds, then we entered the first pit – a huge airport-hanger style building. As you can see in the picture below, the warriors are arranges in trench-like, underground corridors.

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In addition to the first pit discovered by the farmers, a second pit was found containing cavalry and infantry units and a third containing non-military high-ranking officers and horse-drawn chariots. These latter pits give a sense of how the clay pieces appear when first uncovered; some fully composed and standing upright, others deconstructed, with heads and torsos lay alongside cracked clay horses. Apparently they were all originally painted in vivid colours (evident when new pieces are excavated) however, the exposed colour lasts only a few hours in the atmosphere before fading away.

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The excavation work at the site continues today – a painstaking commitment to uncovering and then carefully piecing parts of the statues back together, like a mammoth jigsaw puzzle.

Historians now believe that some 700,000 workers toiled for nearly three decades on the army and tomb complex, and that many lost their lives in the process. It’s believed that those laborers and artisans who continued to work on the tomb at the time of the Emperor’s death were buried alive with the Terracotta Army, to achieve the emperor’s wish to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location (although other sources dispute this, claiming that the clay soldiers were a substitute for actual human sacrifice). If you think about it, there’s a tragic irony in this; due to this spectacularly extravagant and morose tomb accompaniment, this is probably the least secret and most visited burial locations on the planet.

There is loads of info on the Terracotta Army available on the internet, so I’m not going to replicate any more of it here. If you’re interested, some good sites that I’ve come across include the Smithsonian (very detailed) and History.com (shorter article).

Shaking Mr Yang’s hand

On leaving the airport-style hangars which house the warriors, we were led down a commercial street lined with Chinese restaurants, souvenier shops (of course!) and a small building plastered with a large poster exclaiming: ‘Shake the Mr Yang’s Hand!’. We were skeptical at first  – “what?! He sits there all day?! No!” – but it seems that, yes, he really does sit there all day. So we shook his hand – of course.

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I’m assuming that terracotta soldier standing guard behind is a replica…

We spent total less than two days in Xī’ān, and there is a lot more to see if you have more time (I could have spent 2 days in the Muslim Quarter, although I may have needed to buy some larger trousers afterwards!).

The fourth and final stop on our North China tour with my parents was to Zhāngjiājiè in Northwestern Hunan Province – better known as the place that inspired the Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s movie Avatar… blog to come soon!

Emma

The Ancient City of Píngyáo

After a frenetic 48 hours in China’s Capital, Matt, my parents and I boarded a high speed train* and sped to Píngyáo 平遥 – an ancient city in central Shanxi province, approximately half-way between Beijing and Xi’an, and the second stop on our four-city tour of Northern China.

* Bizarrely, when booking the train tickets we were told that the journey from Beijing to Pingyao had sold out – but, that we could book tickets to the stop after Pingyao and get off a stop earlier at Pingyao. Nope, we didn’t understand how that worked either, but that’s what we did!

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Beijing with it’s delicious roast duck and imperial grandeur, there is something particularly special about exploring parts of China which veer off the tourist track and Píngyáo – despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 – was the ‘wild card’ part of our trip. No-one we knew had been (most hadn’t even heard of it) but we’d seen a glowing review in the guidebook so decided to stop off and take a look.

A Courtyard Hotel…

The sun had set by the time our train pulled into the station and the evening air was chilly. We lugged our suitcases past a cacophony of touting taxi drivers and chattering travelers into the mini-van sent by our hotel.

So, I don’t normally dedicate space in this blog to hotels; however, I’m going to make an exception here as this is the first time that we opted for a more ‘authentic’ accommodation experience. Normally when travelling in China we aim for standard 4-5* hotels as they can be very cheap here (though quality varies significantly). This time we went for a local-style 3*, ‘City Wall Old House’ (also known as ‘Ji’s’ Residence’), a 280-year-old courtyard-style building in the heart of Píngyáo Old Town. Our room (see below) was small but cosy; furnished in the traditional Chinese style with a hard (but comfortable) bed built up on bricks and topped with a little wooden tea table.

Having checked in we were ushered into the dining room and presented with a simple, hand-written menu from which we ordered some noodle soup, steamed green vegetables and – on the recommendation of the staff – a plate of cold-sliced cured Píngyáo beef; a local specialty with a strong flavour and tender texture (a bit like corned beef). Apparently, when the Empress Dowager Cixi (the same one who featured in my Beijing blog) passed through Píngyáo she fell head-over-heels for this stuff and it was subsequently elevated in status to an imperial dish! It really was delicious.

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This little fella lived at the hotel, having been rescued from the street by the staff; his favourite hobby was biting your feet – so cute!

A view from the City Walls…

The next morning – after a curious but very generous ‘western style breakfast (which included chicken nuggets, fries, eggs and fruit-bread?!) – we ventured out to explore the city. Píngyáo – founded in the 14th Century – is an exceptionally well-preserved Han Chinese city, having miraculously escaped the comprehensive destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

Our visit coincided with a Chinese public holiday (Qīngmíng jié 清明节, or ‘Tomb Sweeping Festival’) so the streets were crowded with a homologous mass of tour groups and street-vendors. Getting up onto the city walls early seemed like the best plan of action (tickets to climb the walls were around 150rmb, so there were far fewer people making it a great way to take in the city). Built in the Ming Dynasty to resist invaders, the walls are 10 metres high, 3-5 metres wide at the top and over 6000 metres in circumference. In addition to the six gates and four turrets, there are 72 watch towers and 3000 crenels, which represent the 72 disciples and 3000 students of Confucius – of course!

From a higher vantage point we looked out over an earthy labyrinth of streets and alleyways. The busy main streets were lined with colourful canopies as far as the eye could see and behind these lay a gray grid of residential buildings, tightly packed and neatly structured, with flat roofs and stumpy chimneys.

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Ancient Ming-Qing Street, the central axis of the Old Town

A view from street level…

Whether you look down at Píngyáo from the wall, or take in the view from the red-lantern-lined streets, it’s clear that the city has avoided succumbing to modern development. The weather-beaten wood-panelled shopfronts had uniform black-and-gold signage and there wasn’t a Starbucks in sight – although there were some lovely independent coffee shops so Matt and I managed to get our caffeine fix (phew!).

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Another excellent example of 人山人海 (People Mountain People Sea)!
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We found a taste of home in one of the Píngyáo coffee shops!

The main streets were dotted with small specialty stores selling trinkets and souvenirs. Cured beef, polished lacquer-ware and hand-made shoes are much sought after (I’m now the proud owner of a beautiful navy-blue lacquer jewelry box).

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However, by far and away the most common thing that people seemed to be purchasing – perhaps due to it being year of the rooster – were tiny little clip on chickens that could be attached to your hair! Sadly though, you could also buy the real thing, in an unnatural shade of fluorescent yellow, pink or green.

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Off the main streets, the crumbling houses are muddy and somewhat dilapidated, but still hold a sense of elegance – especially in the light of the afternoon sun (I love the photo directly below). The whole city seemed covered in a thick layer of dust, which we heard was a result of the nearby mining industry; it hung in the air and you could almost taste it.

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The Wall Street of Ancient China…

During the 19th and early 20th centuries Píngyáo was the number one financial hub in China, and as such the city played a key role in the economic development of Shanxi province during this time. You can see evidence of this affluent past in some of the more ornate buildings, and many of the tourist attractions capitalise on this financial heritage, such as the Rìshēngchāng (日升昌) Financial House Museum – China’s first bank, which eventually expanded to 57 branches nationwide.

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The Vault

We also visited the Tongxinggong Armed Escort Museum (同兴公镖局), established in 1849 by Wang Zhengqing – a martial arts master who was then famous around China. The Escort agency offered secure long-distance transport of gold and silver across the mainland by road or water. In the museum you can see examples of the weaponry used by the escorts and learn about the process of transport. We didn’t stay too long though as it was incredibly busy!

And finally…

As one of around 0.25 million laowei (foreigners) living in Shanghai, Matt and I don’t generally attract much attention – especially in the cosmopolitan Former French Concession where we live and in the Lujiazui business district where I work. That said, I’m usually conscious of being the only blonde in the room (or metro carriage/ shopping centre/ restaurant…), and the further I venture towards the outskirts of the city, the more this becomes apparent. I become an anomaly and the subject of not-so-subtle stares (sometimes accompanied with a huge grin, loud ‘hello!’ and self-conscious giggle, especially from children!).

Step outside of Shanghai however, into a city which – despite it’s relative size – doesn’t register on the radar of most people, and this sense of ‘otherness’ becomes amplified. I am usually the only blonde in an 100-mile radius! Cue de-facto celebrity status and a steady stream of invitations to be a part of a strangers’ holiday photo album. Matt and I had already experienced this in our visits to South-East China and more recently in Huangshan. While in Píngyáo, my mum and dad got a first taste of insta-fame… As you can see from the slideshow below, they were naturals!

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We spent 2 days in Píngyáo and managed to squeeze in most of the sights without the help of a tour guide. There are a couple of temples (notably Confucius Temple and Shuānglín Temple 双林寺) that we chose not to visit – mainly because we had overdosed on temples in Beijing! – but both were highly recommended.

Emma

“…imposing city walls, atmospheric alleys, ancient shopfronts, traditional courtyard houses, some excellent hotels and hospitable locals, all in a compact area. You can travel the length and breadth of China and not find another town like it. In fact, when you discover Píngyáo you may never want to leave.”  – Discover China, Lonely Planet