Archive for May, 2010

China 6: Beijing, Great Wall, and Tianjin

From Shanghai, an overnight train took us to Beijing. Robin and I spent a week there, taking a much-needed break from moving around every day or two. I also had quite a bit to prepare for my upcoming bike and train trips, especially buying a bike and getting some riding in!

We went for Peking Duck on our first night, then since the restaurant was expensive we visited a nearby "night market" for desert. This was the most orderly night market I’ve ever seen. Usually they’re a chaotic jumble of carts, stalls, and tables, and they run from sometime in the evening until late at night. This one had a single type of stall and about 6 different types of food repeated over 30 or so stalls. The big surprise was that it shut down precisely at 10 PM. They turned off the power, people started packing up, and other people started washing the sidewalk in front of the stalls. This wasn’t just a hose job either – they were dumping buckets of soapy water and scrubbing too!

A highlight of our time in Beijing was hiking the Great Wall. We hiked the section from Jinshanling to Simatai, which is one of the less touristed sections. It was a great hike but too short. Note to China: please open more sections so we can hike further :)

One morning, we rode out to the 2008 olympic park. The bird’s nest now houses some cheesy tourist attractions we figured weren’t worth $7 to see, so we stayed outside. The acquatics centre is closed for renovations! This was also the day of my best ride. Heading straight north from the olympic park, I first rode on new roads built for the olympics then on a highway with nice wide shoulders and hardly any traffic.

As a day trip from Beijing, I headed to Tianjin on my own, partially to take the Hexie and partially to escape Beijing’s pollution for a day. Tianjin reminds me a bit of Kunming in that it’s a modern, clean Chinese city with nothing remarkable but just enough to see to make a good day.

Robin and I also headed to the Lama Temple (for a taste of things to come in Tibet). The unusual thing about this temple is my ticket contained a business card-sized CD. I don’t know what’s on it but I’m bringing it home to check it out.

I visited the Temple of Heaven on my own since I happened to ride by it. This is a 1000 year old temple complex. The best part are the grounds around the temples, which are beautiful juniper orchards largely free of tourists.

All in all, I really liked Beijing and I’m looking forward to going back for a day on my way out to Mongolia. The people are more civilised than in Shanghai ("raised by wolves" is the exception rather than the rule), and there are lots of little alleys (hutong) that are great to wander through. We stayed at a hostel located on a very hipsterish hutong, Nanluogu Xiang. It and the streets nearby are full of trendy shops.. there’s even a Holga Camera shop!

Photos from Beijing are here.

China 3: Dali, Yangshuo

From Lijiang, we took an early day train to Dali. This train left an hour earlier than we thought.. the schedule had changed about 2 days before our trip! We made it though. The train ride was uneventful but it was neat to look out the window.. everything was new. The track from Dali to Lijiang was only opened in April!

Dali was another good place to spend a day – a very laid back place, used to dealing with western tourists but not overrun with them (us.) A weird phenomenon were the ganja ladies. Any time we ate or drank on an outdoor terrace, we would be approached by women whispering "ganja? ganja?" There were also women selling locally made silverware who would visit our table to show off their wares. We decided to have some fun with them. Phase 1 was asking ganja ladies for silver, and asking silver ladies for opium. Phase 2 was to make animal noises (quack quack quack, etc.) until they left. This took a surprisingly long time and it was hard to keep a straight face.

A couple of photos of Dali are here.

The next morning we took a bus to Kunming (the one day train that does Lijiang -> Dali -> Kunming would not have arrived in time) then connected to a night train to Guilin. From there it was a short 1h bus trip to Yangshuo, the climbing capital of China.

Robin and were going to spend the next day climbing. I emailed a few people from the partner board in the Karst Café, one of the local climber hangouts. One of them (Phil) met us there for breakfast the next day.. this was a good thing because Robin was too tired to climb. So Phil and I rented bikes and set off for the crag. We went to one limestone outcropping with 2 developed faces and spent the morning climbing easy stuff (5c, 6a) on the east face. After lunch we tried to find the west face but couldn’t get there, and none of the other climbers out for the day knew how to find it. But then one of them suggested we try a 7b. This is normally well beyond my ability but he said it was actually much easier than 7b and well protected (in other words you’re very unlikely to injure yourself if you fall,) so we gave it a go.

I started off leading and resting after clipping every bolt. It felt more like a 6c (which is basically the edge of my ability and harder than I’ll normally lead.) But I was doing OK. Then about 2/3 of the way up I got to a section that I just couldn’t figure out. There was a bit of a crack but not a great one, and a small flake sticking out, and no good feet. I was far enough above my last bolt that I had no choice but to keep going up, and then I fell.. somehow ended up head first (which isn’t supposed to happen) but didn’t injure myself… just a few scrapes on my arm. Well, first lead fall of the year out of the way :)

Phil tried the climb after me but couldn’t make it as high as I did. He used the rope to pull himself up to the 2/3 point then lowered off and cleaned his gear. We called it a day after that.

The next day Robin and I visited the mud cave. This is a weird attraction. You get a guided tour (Chinese only unfortunately) of some fairly spectacular underground formations, then you can bathe in a pool of mud. After that, the real treat: a series of hot tub-like pools fed from a volcanic spring. Not quite an onsen, but it was nice anyway.

After that we took the bus back to Guilin then got on a night train to Guangzhou, the mainland transportation hub for Hong Kong.

A couple of photos of the 7b climb are here.

(Robin and I were in Dali on May 6 and in Yangshuo from May 8-10.)


I’m on a “hexie” (He Xie Hao CRH3 EMU), the world’s fastest intercity train, from Beijing to Tianjin: 120 km in 30 minutes, at a top speed of 350 km/h (supposedly… but I didn’t see it go above 320 km/h.)


Impressive numbers, but not really an impressive train network… because this service is all there is! Fortunately they’re building a lot more, and quickly!

The inside of the trains is a close copy of the N700 Shinkansen. From the outside, the train is sleek but looks less aerodynamic than the N700, which has rubber seals at the couplings rather than a big gap like most other trains. So I have no idea how it manages to be so fast. Better motors? More modern track design?

They’re proud of these trains though.. at the Beijing end, an army of workers handwashes each car with a squeegee before every run!

Cleaning the Hexie

(Entry written May 23, 2010)

China 2: Leap That Gorge!

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: an early start to the day.. we left Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse in Lijiang at 7:30 in a minivan shared with 5 other hikers after one of Mama’s huge breakfast sandwiches. We arrived at Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou just after 10, ready to start our hike. Unfortunately, Robin slipped on some concrete steps at Jane’s and hurt her shoulder… but she was willing to try hiking so we set off.

The beginning of the hike wasn’t that interesting. We were walking on the “high road” through the back ways of Qiaotou town, passing by a couple of schools and then a field of ponies for rent. A couple of the pony renters followed us in case one of us wanted a ride. This actually worked out well because Robin was having trouble carrying her bag because of her injury, so she paid a pony guy to carry the bag to the top of the 24 bends path, the highest point of the hike.

Once we left Qiaotou, things got more interesting and more scenic. We made plans to meet for lunch and I left the group, wanting to hike as quickly as possible (for the fun of it… I enjoy expending energy on silly pursuits.) I arrived at Tea Horse Guesthouse, ate lunch, and read my book while waiting for the others.

After lunch it was easier going. We had already covered 2/3 of the day’s distance and most of the climbing. Robin decided she was able to carry her own bag now, so we did the hike to Halfway Guesthouse together and arrived before any of the others.

TLG Day 2: we got going fairly early again. I stayed more or less with Robin until the turnoff to the big waterfall, an optional side trip that only I wanted to do. After that hike (another fun climb,) I ate lunch at Tina’s Guesthouse then did the walk down to the river to see Tiger Leaping Stone. This is what gave the gorge its name – according to legend, a tiger once leaped the whole gorge from this stone to the other side!

After that, I climbed back up the same way and met up with Robin at Tina’s. We organized a group of 5 heading back to Lijiang and set off in a minivan. The drive back was via the “low road”, which was under intense construction to widen it and allow bus tours to visit the gorge. This made for a very bumpy ride and an interesting stop. There was a section of the road that was being widened, and this was being done by a group of about 10 men at the top of a scree slope digging out and throwing down boulders. Most of them bounced down the scree slope, across the road, and down into the gorge, but some stayed on the road. We all watched from a safe distance for about 20 minutes, then our driver blew a whistle to get the workers to stop. They did, and the drivers of all the waiting vehicles all rushed into action picking up all the boulders left on the road and throwing them over the side of the gorge. Then into the minivan and off we went!

We had to change minivans at Jane’s guesthouse and there was a bit of related drama but thanks to our Mandarin-speaking co-travellers it all worked out!

We arrived back at Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse in time for dinner. I’ve mentioned this before, but the dinner was amazing. Buffet style traditional Naxi food, more than any of us could eat even after a day of hiking, for the equivalent of $2.50! What a great way to end the day!

TLG photos are here – Gorgeorific!

(Robin and I hiked through Tiger Leaping Gorge on May 4-5, 2010)

Vietnam 3: Ha Long Bay and Sapa

We left Hanoi on a complicated trip to Cat Ba Town: bus, bus, boat, bus. Fortunately, this was all supplied on one ticket from one company, and wasn’t any more expensive than arranging it ourselves. Cat Ba Town is on one end of Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay. It’s mostly a destination for Vietnamese tourists but is also home to Slo Pony Adventures, which runs rock climbing all around the bay.

All the climbing on Cat Ba Island itself is in the beautiful Butterfly Valley, a 15 minute motorcycle ride from Cat Ba Town. It’s a great crag – no multipitch but with several climbs in the 25m – 30m range. Lots of variety in the grades. Robin and I climbed there for a couple of days then took a rest day. I went out to the crag on our rest day anyway, but not to climb.. I did it for the goat and the ride. The ride was a great bike ride to Butterfly Valley on an actual mountain bike (nice to have something with gears and decent seat height after the pokey Asian singlespeeds I’d been riding.) The goat was a goat! There is a family of farmers who live and work at the base of the crag, and they organize an amazing lunch for hungry climbers. But goat day was special: a whole bunch of climbers pitched in and they spit roasted a whole goat over a wood fire! Nom!

We also spent a day out on the boat.. Slo Pony lease a boat that’s used for Deep Water Soloing trips and taking climbers out to crags on other islands. They also organize tours on days when nobody’s using the boat for climbing, so Robin and I did one of those. We kayaked, visited a fish farm, and enjoyed fresh clams cooked in the boat’s kitchen.

Ha Long Bay is a great spot for climbing.. one of the ones I definitely want to return to (along with Tonsai.) It’s not as popular a destination as Tonsai but it’s easy enough to find partners. There’s lots to climb in Butterfly Valley and there are loads of other crags on other islands we didn’t have the chance to explore.

Cat Ba photos are here.

Ha Long Bay photos are here.

From Cat Ba we took the same boat + bus trip back to Hanoi (I wanted to take the train from Hai Phong but the boats to Hai Phong were sold out and it would have been more complicated and expensive anyway.) From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to Lao Cai and a shared (leaves when full) minivan up the mountain to Sapa.

Sapa is another beautiful place, and also a bit strange. The strange part is the hundreds of women from nearby minority villages that come up to Sapa to sell their crafts (bags, hats, clothing) to tourists, both foreign and Vietnamese (we visited during the May 1 holiday weekend, so there were a LOT of Vietnamese tourists!) It can be fun to engage them in conversation for a bit.. I eventually figured out that just because they want to sell you something doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them about other things :) But eventually they move on if you’re not buying.

Robin and I walked to the minority village of Cat Cat because it’s the closest to Sapa. It’s very touristy, with both sides of the main walkway full of stalls selling crafts… most of which are produced in other minority villages and brought to Cat Cat to sell to tourists. But there’s also a beautiful waterfall and a very pleasant river to walk by…

We then headed even furthur along the same road to Sin Chai.. much less touristy, mostly occupied by farmers (although one woman tried to get us to come into her house and smoke opium!) I was also trying to find one of the approaches to Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina, but gave up. Just as well – Mr. Fancypants had his head in the clouds for our whole visit!

The next day, I wandered up Ham Rong mountain, which is is a well developed park in Sapa itself offering great views of the town. Then I rented a bike and rode to another village, Ta Phin. I visited one of the local houses (on the invitation of one of the ladies making crafts in the town square) and after 5 minutes of polite conversation, was set upon to buy things (of course.) I also visited Ta Phin cave, which was free according to a sign posted right next to it but some guys at the entrance wanted money to turn the lights on. Great – caves are much more fun to explore with a flashlight anyway!

From Ta Phin I rode back up to Sapa then over to Silver Falls. I didn’t actually go to see the falls themselves because it was getting late and I wanted to be back in Sapa by dark… but the ride was great and so were the views along the way!

Sapa photos are here. There are also a few photos from my passport retrieval misadventure.

Or you can look at all my Vietnam photos here – they’re all uploaded, finally.

(Robin and I were in Cat Ba from April 22 – 28, and in Sapa from April 29 – May 1.)

Made it to Lhasa

I’m currently in Lhasa.. I arrived 2 nights ago on the train from Xining.

There’s much less Internet access here than in the rest of China, and I expect it to be even worse when I’m on my bike trip. Cell phone coverage is also likely to be poor. So expect delays if you send me an email… I’ll get to it eventually.

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes on Facebook. Unfortunately FB is completely blocked in China and my VPN can’t get to it either for some reason. So send me an email ( if it’s important.

& I’m uploading a large number of photos from Vietnam and China. Hopefully I’ll get them all uploaded before I leave Lhasa, but see above. Also kflickr is a giant pile of FAIL but it’s the best flickr client I’ve found :(

How’s Lhasa so far? Great! The Tibetan part of town is very beautiful with prayer flags everywhere. It’s full of Tibetans in all sorts of dress doing the pilgrimage to Jokhang Temple and also full of vendors (but not the pushy, annoying kind.) The other people on the bike tour are awesome too – looking forward to spending the next 3 weeks riding with them.

China 1: Kunming, Lijiang

Robin and I arrived in Kunming on May 2 after an exhausting overnight bus journey just in time to miss the one day train to Lijiang. Not to worry, there was just enough to see in Kunming for a pleasant day sightseeing before the night train.

We visited the east and west pagodas, wandered around market streets crowded because of the May 1 long weekend, and found a long table.. apparently there is a tradition in small villages that everyone brings their table to the town square to form one long table. They recreated this in the big city of Kunming by setting up tables the entire length of the pedestrian street between the east and west pagodas and serving a catered lunch. There were dozens of drums all the way down the long table, and eventually a large group of teenagers in traditional costumes came out to play. There was also traditional dancing on a stage.

After we got bored of the festivities, we wandered through more crowded streets to Yuantong Temple. This is a beautiful place with several ponds full of fish and turtles. From the temple, we had some food at a nearby restaurant serving vegan "meat" (like Chuchai in Montréal) and then spent a few hours relaxing in the city’s main park before heading to the train station for our night train to Lijiang.

Kunming is pretty nice overal.. much cleaner than Vietnam. There are no loud, stinky scooters on the road. Instead, electric scooters and the occasional "big" bike. There’s a lot less litter on the ground, not because Chinese people litter any less but because there are armies of workers wandering around cleaning it up. The big exception is the toilets. Chinese toilets are terrible. I don’t know how they manage to be so bad.. I’ve used squat toilets elsewhere in Asia that are much cleaner.

Photos of Kunming are here.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: Lijiang is awesome. The old city is a preserved heritage site with beautiful carved wooden buildings all over. There are stone walkways (motor vehicles are banned) with canals flowing alongside, which used to be the city’s drinking water system. If you’ve ever read Memoirs of a Geisha, this is what I imagine Gion looked like around the time of the book – moreso than anywhere in Kyoto itself even!

Photos of Lijiang are here.

(We visited Kunming on May 2 and Lijiang on May 3)

Brands in Southeast Asia

  • Toyota pretty well owns the market for saloon cars (almost always Camry) and pickup trucks. Hyundai is the brand of choice for minivans.
  • Honda is doing well too: they have a huge share of the small (100-125cc) motorcycle market, which is a popular way to get around in most places, and the dominant vehicle choice in Vietnam. I’ve seen signs at parking lots giving prices for "Hon Da" instead of the correct word, which is "Xe Mai."
  • In some cities, the Internet Explorer logo is used on signs to mean "Internet Café." I thought the Internet Explorer logo just meant viruses and incompatibility. I’m very glad to be travelling with my own laptop.
  • I often see signs advertising that a restaurant or tourist attraction has been recommended by Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. Are they really the final arbitrers of quality in the world?
  • Here’s an even more interesting series of restaurants:

    3 restaurants...

    The one on the left was actually recommended by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. The other two are squatting on its reputation and lying about the recommendations.

  • And then there are the testimonials. Many independent guides carry around testimonial books, which are full of glowing recommendations written in all sorts of languages by past clients. Motorcycle tour guide Minh Thu of Café on Thu Wheels takes this a step further: her whole restaurant is covered in testimonials:


Bicycle #09

The first bicycle I ever bought was a Giant Sedona ATX back in 1994. It was a rigid frame mountain bike with STX (slightly above today’s Alivio) components. I rode it all over the trails of St. John’s, took it to university in Kingston, put it on a train to Vancouver, then rode it back to St. John’s. In its 16 year lifetime it’s been repainted twice and rebuilt more times than I can count.. probably quicker to count the original components: frame, stem, cranks, chainrings. It’s now a cargo bike (Xtracycle) and is sitting in a storage locker in Montréal patiently awaiting my return.

Bicycles 2 – 7 are, in order: a full suspension mountain bike (also a Giant), a fixie, a winter bike, a chopper, a folding bike (Strada), and a road bike.

Bicycle 8 is a "Land Slider" cheap singlespeed that I bought in Tokyo. I parked it outside my former apartment building and I have independent confirmation that it’s still there.

Now onto bicycle 9: a Giant ATX 770. I bought it last week in Beijing. Alivio components, RST Omega fork… I’m not too pleased with the fork but hopefully it will hold up for 3 weeks of abuse in the Himalayas.

I’ve been riding it around Beijing. When I have the energy, it’s the fastest thing on 2 wheels, outpacing the electric and 2-stroke scooters many of the locals ride. When I don’t, it’s still pretty quick… definitely the best bike I’ve ridden in months!

Hopefully riding in Beijing is good training for the low-oxygen air in Tibet. I’m sure I’ll be fine provided I can cough out whatever’s sitting in my lungs before I start the bike tour on June 1.

(Entry written May 22, 2010)

Phase IIIb: into Tibet and onto Kathmandu

Robin and I spent the last week in Beijing.. I needed to do some planning, book some tickets, get a visa… and Beijing is a great city anyway (apart from the pollution.)

We’re now on a train from Beijing to Xining. We left the hostel at about the same time but by different routes: she took the bus and I rode my bike. Before entering the station, I pulled out my multitool and took the bike apart to pack it in 2 large canvas bags (frame, fork, and bars in one, wheels and seat in the other.) From then on, it was a bit awkward to carry but I didn’t raise any eyebrows.. there were a few people with even bigger burdens boarding the same train.

It’s now under my seat, and when we get to Xining I’ll put it together for another bit of riding. Robin and I are spending one night there before parting ways for a bit. She couldn’t find an affordable way to visit Tibet (and my bike tour is anything but) so I’m getting on a train to Lhasa and she’s getting on a train to Xian. We’ll meet up in Beijing in just under a month after our separate adventures!

(Entry written May 25, 2010)

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