A Travellerspoint blog

A Visit to the Forbidden City

A visit to the Emperors Forgotten City Museum

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Awakening to gentle snow fall and glistening ice, Steph and I were still feeling the effects of the day before - hiking on the Great Wall really took it out of us! Nevertheless we decided to brave the freezing cold and take a trip to the Forbidden City, seeing as it was only a short walk away.

It is named the Forbidden City, as the large grounds were once reserved only for the Emperor. Access to the entire area was forbidden to any members of the public. Nowadays the vast majority of the grounds have been transformed into a museum. However a large park area to the West still remains reserved for visits by the Emperor.

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It was fascinating walking around the grounds. The place was like a huge maze, and with the lack of adequate signposts it was easy to get lost. I could picture the emperor ambling through the countless hallways dressed in expensive garments, pausing to rest on one of the countless thrones we came across as we explored.

Steph and I both felt however, that the place could have been treated with a bit more respect by its visiting tourists. Considering its importance, we were both shocked at the amount of hocking and spitting by Chinese tourists, and the very poor condition that everything seemed to be kept in.

Maybe it's because we are both used to museums being well looked after, and their contents well maintained. Or maybe it was due to the fact that we were visiting out of season. Even still, we couldn't help but wonder where all the entrance fee's went!

Feeling lethargic from our escapades on the Great Wall the day before, we decided to cut the day short and head back to the hostel to recoup a bit. That would at least give our punished limbs an opportunity for a much needed rest.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:44 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Great Wall of China was... well... great!

One of the best day's I've had in China so far! I love mountains.

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I woke this morning with a great deal of excitement and anticipation, for today was the day we planned to walk the Great Wall of China!

Countless people had tried to persuade us into taking guided tours to visit the wall, which all sounded pretty damn expensive to us poor travellers. Fortunately we were sharing a dorm with an American girl (who by the way works as Snow White in the productions of Disney on Ice) and she wasn't willing to pay the extortionate prices for tours either. She had decided to find her own way to the wall, which ended up costing a third of the tour price and with the bonus of having complete freedom to explore wherever she wanted, for however long too. We noted down the route, which involved a train, a bus and a short walk, and headed off for the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

We couldn't have had a better day for it. Gleaming sunshine, and although the wind was still freezing cold, it soon became welcome as we quickly worked up a sweat, trekking the thousands of steps and steep slopes that wind their way across the mountainous countryside.

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We climbed to the highest section of the wall along with a large number of other tourists, taking in the stunning scenery and awe inspiring views along the way. Once we reached the highest point we stopped for a short period to catch our breath. The next section of the wall was pretty much clear of tourists completely. No doubt they were put off by the very steep decent which lovingly combined with several steep inclines straight after. I wasn't deterred though. I saw a tower off in the distance that I wanted to get to, and that was now my goal. Once I'd made it there I knew I would have achieved something special. Very few of the drones upon drones of tourists walking the wall were willing enough (or stupid enough for that matter) to tackle the next section. I was.

I told Steph of my idea, and as expected she wasn't too impressed. I offered to go on ahead and meet her on the way back, saving her the majority of the journey, but if any of you know my girlfriend well, you'll know she's a very determined girl. When she puts her mind to something she will do it.

I went on ahead, and eventually reached the tower, which actually turned out to be the end of that section of wall, we could go no further even if we wanted to. The going was tough, and so I was doubly amazed as after a short while I saw Steph powering along, not far from where I was. I could see she had set her mind on reaching the tower to, and nothing was going to stand in her way! We exchanged huge, warming smiles as she approached. While we were both exhausted, we were also simply overwhelmed with joy and adrenaline of what we'd just done. As we stood there, absorbing the breathtaking views the silence was deafening.

Now came the hard part (laugh out loud) we had a daunting climb back to the highest point, then we had to descend back to the entrance. It was tough going. We paused occasionally to catch our breath, but for the most part we carried on, taking it step by step. Once we'd finally reached the top it was a welcome sight. Yet another achievement! Still not content with our efforts we decided to head up the other side of the wall after we had returned back to the entrance. This was yet another daunting climb, but we had our rhythm now. No tourists ventured that way for some reason, so the climb was much more peaceful and, for me anyway, far more enjoyable.

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The views from the second highpoint were worth all the effort. I felt exhilarated, like I was on top of the world. I remember thinking there was no other place I'd rather be right then, as we both stood there watching the sun slowly fall from the sky.

This was definitely a highlight of my trip and I personally loved every second.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:30 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Train Travel During Chinese New Year

Note to self: Book early next time!

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As I mentioned previously, we were very fortunate to get some train tickets up to Beijing in the first place. Now we needed some to get us from Beijing to Xi'an, and Xi'an to Kowloon (in Hong Kong). I must admit this had me a little nervous. Everyone had told us how it would be near impossible to get tickets at this time of year, as everyone was attempting to get home to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families.

We decided to give it a shot and try our luck at the bustling Beijing Train Station to try and hunt down some (golden) tickets. To add to the problem, it turns out there are no direct trains operating from Xi'an to Kowloon. Nice. We weren't deterred. I spent a couple of hours checking out what route we needed to take, then we got the kind receptionist to copy a short note I had written (explaining our requirements) into Chinese so it could be read by the ticket office staff.

Armed with our note from the teacher, err, I mean receptionist, we headed for the station. We were directed to the ticket office for Beijing West Train Station, where we handed the note to the lady in the ticket office. After a short while laughing and discussing the note with her colleagues she got down to business searching the database for some tickets. To our amazement she found some! It was only then that we discovered that they don't accept payment by card, so off Steph ran to find the nearest ATM! I stayed at the ticket booth, making sure that our tickets were kept in plain sight through the little window.

Like an angel, out of all of the bustle and confusion came Steph jogging (or 'yogging' to those of you who've seen Anchorman) in her brightly coloured jacket. I can't tell you how good it felt to have those tickets in our hands. Unfortunately we couldn't get direct in to Kowloon, but the lady did manage to get us to the nearest major town, where we were told it would be relatively easy to get across the border.

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To celebrate our achievement we grabbed some lunch in Maccy D's (there are plenty over here, and they're half the price!) and we took a long walk to 'Temple of Heaven' park, which looked fantastic with all the new year decorations hanging from the trees.

On returning to the hostel we met a girl from Finland who had also tried to get tickets at the station that morning, but failed! We both sat there slightly smug, but that was soon wiped away when the girl informed us of the English speaking ticket office at the station! Damn.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:28 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Ni Hao Beijing!

A wander round the streets of Beijing, then traditional tea and supper with some friendly Chinese girls

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After arriving in Beijing we headed straight for our hostel (which was pretty straight forward) to drop off our heavy rucksacks. We had some directions to follow, but a stroke of luck made things even easier.

We came across an elderly man who looked Chinese but was in fact born in Cuba. As a result he was fluent in Spanish, which to our great fortune meant that my clever girlfriend could have a proper conversation with him! Steph pretty much grew up in Spain, and after living there for a few years she's now very fluent in 'el lingo'. The elderly man was very friendly, and helped us on our way.

The hostel was actually pretty nice. It backed on to the walls of the Forbidden City, and was located relatively near to Tiananmen East metro station, which meant it was easy for us to reach the other major sights of the capital. We were located in quite a high end area, so that made the cost of our hostel even more of a bargain at just £3 per night! The room was close to hotel quality, the receptionists were smartly dressed and spoke very good English and there was even a tourist information desk located in the lobby! A nice touch after the nightmare train journey we'd just undertaken.

With the majority of the day still ours for the taking, we headed out to have a walk around in the freezing cold to see some of the sights that were right on our doorstep. Our walk took us around the walls of the Forbidden City, then on to Tiananmen Square (the largest city square in the world), then to the 'Monument to the People's Heroes' and finally through some massive ancient gates which lead to the square.

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Whilst we were heading back to the hostel we came across some Chinese girls who wanted to practice English with us. We chatted for a while, and they asked what we were doing tonight. We said we'd had a long day, so we were looking to have a cheap meal and then head back to the hostel to sleep. The girls invited us to eat with them and took us to a little traditional tea house not far from where we met them. Alarm bells were ringing in our heads, knowing that this might be some kind of scam, so we made it clear that we had very little money, and would only order if it was very cheap. The food menu looked very reasonable, so we ordered a dish each and continued chatting while sipping on traditional green tea.

It was good talking to the girls as we got a chance to ask them some questions about what we had seen in China so far, as well as experience first hand culture. We even left the tea with a gift from the owner of a tin containing £25 worth of 'rare' green tea.

As we walked back to the hostel to get our heads down, we were beckoned in to a shop by an (overly) friendly artist named Feng. Once inside, Feng then proceeded to show us lots of his artwork (which was actually really good) and he talked us through the meanings behind some of his paintings.

Being a master in traditional Chinese calligraphy he insisted on showcasing his talents by writing both 'Stephaine' and 'Antony' on a piece of paper. We knew a sales pitch was about due, so when it came we were both fully prepared, and explained that we had very little money to spend. Feng was very nice about it, and even offered us the painting he did of our names as a free gift as we left.

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All in all our first day in Beijing was pretty fantastic. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, even though the biting cold meant we were sniffing a lot, and couldn't spend too long standing around!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:24 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

22 Hours and Counting

Travelling long distance by train with some colourful locals

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I must admit, 22 hours on a train didn't sound great to begin with, and I can safely say after completing the journey that it's not something I would jump at the chance of doing again.

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It started pretty well. We got to the train station and managed to find our train with relative ease, half an hour before the train was due to depart. We got to our carriage, and found our seats were taken – this is where things started to go downhill. We decided to sit in the next seats, and play dumb if we got asked to move. The train moved off and we thought we'd had a real result, as we both had 3 seater booths each with lots of space. Then the train stopped at the next station and loads of people got on. Bummer. The train continued to do this a number of times, until it was so over crowded that baggage and people were filling the isles, the doorways and basically other crevis something anything could possibly fit.

Unfortunately the new seats we moved to were actually taken by some clown who craved attention, along with his buddies. He proceeded to kick up a big fuss, which we then made a little worse by playing dumb. We had agreed that the best plan of action was to wait until a train warden asked us to move. That way he could see our proper seats were also taken, and would hopefully help us reclaim them, thus avoiding us losing any form of seating for the remainder of the journey. Smart I know. This eventually happened, and so were moved to our proper seats. Everyone on the train starred at us from the moment we got on to the moment we left, and of course the seating incident didn't really help things. It was a little unnerving, but me being me I just shot the odd mean stare back when I felt it was necessary to keep the playing field even, and put the locals in their place.

The majority of the journey was relatively uneventful - bar the spitting on the floor by pretty much everyone, smoking in the non-smoking areas, littering of all rubbish all over the floor, the hole in the floor for a toilet which it seemed everyone managed to miss and of course the friendly starring by anyone and everyone. The hours ticked by and train slowly started to empty. Steph was engrossed in a book she had 'borrowed' from the hostel in Shanghai, but I didn't want to let my guard down for even a second so I continued to sit there, constantly alert. I didn't actually do anything except look out of the window for the whole 22 hours. I didn't use my iPod, I didn't read my book or I didn't even doodle. Fun times, but I couldn't relax and was waiting for something to kick off.

It seemed the train warden took pity on us, because as it got later in to the night he bumped us up to a hard sleeper carriage, which meant that we actually got a bed along with some personal space (but unfortunately still the refreshing passive smoke). I still didn't want to sleep though, because there were still a couple of dodgy characters bopping about, poking their heads round the corner occasionally to get some starring in. Steph got tucked up in her sleeping bag, and managed to get a few hours I think, which was good.

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The view I saw from the window reminded me quite a lot of the 9 hour bus ride I took from Nairobi to Moshi on the way to climb Kilimanjaro. Row upon row of broken down shacks, dilapidated buildings and piles of rubbish everywhere. The only real difference was the odd factory pumping out smoke stacks of pollution into the atmosphere. It shocked me. Here I was expecting China to be quite well off, when in reality the majority of the country looked very, very poor. It really opened my eyes – now I know the reason why everything we buy in England is 'Made in China'.

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We got to Beijing Railway Station at around 10am and I don't think I've ever been happier to get up and walk with my heavy rucksack safely strapped to my back.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 14:30 Archived in China Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Shanghai was a culture shock...

Very different to what I had previously pictured in my mind

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On the ferry over to Shanghai we met a really nice American guy called Devin. He had done a couple of seasons teaching English in China, and as a result was very knowledgeable about life there. Devin gave us a great insight in to what things were like in China, and explained how different it was from Japan in terms of culture. This showed my nievity, as I had always presumed that it was very similar to Japan.

I really enjoyed chatting to Devin, and we actually ended up sharing a cab from the ferry terminal to the nearest subway station. He kindly offered to pay for the cab and also our rail tickets, which amounted to just a couple of Yuan (a few pence). His kind gesture really helped us out, as we had foolishly only brought a few ¥100 (approximately £10) notes with us from the UK, and both the cabbie and the ticket machine at the subway station wouldn't accept our 'large' notes!

We parted ways as Steph and I headed for our hostel. After a short subway ride, where a large number of locals starred at us (something that would soon become a regular occurrence in China) we got off at our stop and began trekking towards our hostel. My first impressions were that the area was very run down. The buildings were for the most part in disrepair and the streets were filled with rubbish. It didn't help that everyone seemed to star at us as we walked, which made me feel quite uneasy. We eventually found our hostel (no sign, just a doorway with the house number above it) and although the place was still not in the best condition, it was at least a lot more comforting. The reception staff were relatively friendly and helpful, and we were soon settled in a newly decorated room (still smelling of paint fumes).

After a short time getting our barrings and chatting to a very friendly French lady in the common room, we set off to explore more of Shanghai. We stopped off at a couple of places on the Subway, one of which was the Pearl Tower. Shanghai was not what I expected. It all seemed very dirty, a constant smog filled the air, and the people were extremely rude – let alone the fact that man, women and child all seem to have picked up the disgusting habbit of hocking and spitting all over the place, regardless of who is in the way!

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At hostel we were told that getting train tickets around China at this time of year would be very difficult, due to everyone in China trying to getting back to there home provinces to celebrate the Chinese New Year (14th February). This was a big blow as we have to make it to Hong Kong for our flight on the 18th! Whilst exploring Shanghai we saw a huge queue coming from a doorway, we asked a friendly ice cream salesman what it was and he said it was for rail tickets. After explaining our situation we had probably the biggest stroke of luck on our trip so far – the ice cream salesman said he had a mate that worked there, and he could get us tickets if we liked. Unsure whether to trust him, but willing to take a chance we let him take ¥200 (roughly £20) from us to get us the cheapest tickets possible. He came back a short while later clutching our change and two tickets to Beijing leaving the next morning! Fantastic, they seemed genuine enough, and he wouldn't even accept our gift of ¥10 for his favour. Still unsure if the tickets were genuine, we took them back to the hostel for confirmation from the receptionists. Fortunately they were, but they were the lowest form of travel and the journey was to take 22 hours. All we had purchased was a basic hard seat to sit on, but for the price of about £8 to get to Beijing we couldn't really grumble too much.

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On our way back to the hostel we came across an amazing street market, which sold fresh fruit, meats and fish in abundance. Live eels, shrimp, catfish and crabs were all readily available, along with a wide variety of other meats and vegetables. A lively and colourful finish to our day first day in China.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 14:02 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

All aboard the Su Zhou Hao!

2 day slow boat journey to China begins here

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Now comes the time for us to say “sayoonara” to Japan, as we sail into the sunset aboard the Su Zhou Hao. I absolutely loved the time we spent in Japan, in particular the Asakusa ward of Tokyo, and the Nara area just outside of Osaka. I'd love to return one day in the future to see more of the country - and maybe even climb Mount Fuji!

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The ferry is pretty standard. It comes complete with a cafe, restaurant, DVD room and three decks of varying accommodation. We decided to treat ourselves to a minor upgrade and travel 2nd class A, as apposed to the cheapest option - 2nd class B. For around an extra £7.50 per night you get a proper bed instead of just floor space, and more importantly somewhere to lock away you're things rather than just leaving them in a large open area. Seemed crazy not to!

As I write this I'm sitting in the reading room of the ferry, looking out across the front deck of the ship to a stunning sunset, which would simply take you're breath away. The glowing golden sphere of the red hot sun is gracefully falling from the sky behind some of the tiny floating islands to south west of Japan's mainland. I love being at sea. I think it's the feeling of serenity and peace you get from knowing that everywhere you turn there is several miles between you and the hectic hustle and bustle of everyday life. Maybe I'll buy a boat. Yes, a boat would be nice.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 18:08 Archived in Japan Tagged boating Comments (0)

Lean on me

The kindness of strangers is important when you're in a foreign land

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One thing that I started to think about whilst sitting on a bus in Kyoto, on my way to see the Golden Pavilion, is how important it is for you to be able to depend on the kindness of strangers to help you, when travelling a foreign country.

I thought about the numerous people that I'd asked for help or directions during our time in Tokyo alone. If it wasn't for them taking the time to stop and help us, finding our way and getting what we needed would have been near impossible. During our time in Japan I've especially noticed how people will go out of their way to help. They seem to have a very polite and kind hearted nature, which might possibly be linked to their Buddhist beliefs.

A moment that stands out for me was when we were searching for our hostel in Ikenboura on our first night. We asked a lady coming out of a convenience store where the address was, and she signaled for us to follow her as she took off running to the end of the street. Once there she stopped and smiled, pointing along a small side road to our hostel! Considering we certainly weren't looking our best, exhausted from a 12 hour flight combined with 10 hours travelling Tokyo looking for a bed, plus the fact that she probably couldn't understand a word we said, it's a miracle she would even help us at all! Actually, maybe that accounts for the 'running away' part of that story.

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When you actually think about it, almost everyone I know would stop to help someone who was lost and needed assistance, even if they couldn't communicate in any other way than by simple gestures and body language. I guess the desire to help others is something that is instinctive in humans, and programmed in to us at a primal level.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 18:05 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Spa World! A must if you're ever in Osaka

Outside jacuzzi's on the 8th floor, 3 whole floors of spa treatments and a huge swimming pool/waterpark...

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A definite highlight of our stay in Shin-imamiya was the 2 minute walk (past all the tramps and weirdo's) to a place called 'Spa World'. We thought we'd check it out on our last night in Japan, as it was in such close proximity to where we were staying. The idea was to have a nice relaxing time before boarding the ferry bound for Shanghai the next day, and let me tell you... it was simply amazing!

For the modest price of just ¥1,000 (about £7) you gain entry to the 8 story building, and the majority of it's facilities. Without breaking habit, entrance to the place is yet again done by purchasing a token from a machine at the reception. Once inside you are asked to remove your footwear and place it in a locker (this is normal protocol in Japan) from there you board an elevator to go to your specific floor to get changed. Two of the floors are dedicated to each gender (4th was for women and the 6th was for men) so I departed on the 6th floor.

It was a very surreal experience at first. As soon as the elevator doors open you immediately notice that everyone is wearing blue pajamas and carrying small orange towels. Everyone I saw seemed completely relaxed. Some gentle oriental music played unobtrusively in the background while I went to my locker to change. Whilst walking around the building men are required to wear the three-quarter length blue pajamas (for girls - oversized pink nighties) with exception of the 'Swim Zone' on the top floor, where you don some form of swimwear. Steph and I had agreed to take a quick look around our floors, then re-group in the 'Swim Zone'.

The swim zone was incredible! We took a dip in a huge heated pool that had a number of bubble jets dotted around it, and then decided to head outside to the boiling hot tubs and bubbling jacuzzi's. Next we headed back inside to the huge water park, complete with a number of water slides, and a tunnel which contained a beautiful waterfall and rainbow rain area. After about an hour messing around like wide eyed little kids we decided to be a bit more mature and start enjoying some of the spa treatments on offer.

I headed down to the 'Asia Zone' (the male only floor) where I enjoyed around 7 different areas which homed treatments themed on various parts of asia. Some features of my floor included:

  • a salt sauna – where you exfoliate by rubbing coarse salt all over your body, then sit in the heat to let it all dissolve into your skin
  • a hot pool filled with milk, honey and crystallized jelly
  • outside hot tubs filled with oriental herbs and situated by several calming waterfalls
  • high falling waterfall showers

Some of the features on Steph's floor were:

  • super detox – a beautiful pool filled with various minerals with the main focal point being the huge colourful aquarium
  • Greek mud baths
  • Mediterranean hot bath waterfall – with sun lounges positioned in a hot bath, with only the feet and head raised out of the water
  • oxygen baths

By the way, did I mention on each of the spa treatments floors you have to be naked the whole time? That's quite important. As with the hot spring baths in Tokyo, it seems pretty normal for the Japanese people to bare all in front of each other – something Steph wasn't too keen on at first! Although you are still conscious of being naked the whole time, you soon begin to realise that no-one really cares, and the relaxing treatments start to take over.

There were additional treatments such as hot stone massages that you could pay for on top of the entrance fee, but we didn't do any of those, so all in all the 4 hours that we spent there cost just £7! Incredible value, considering we could have spent the entire day there if we wished.

If you ever find yourself in Osaka, I'd highly recommend a visit to Spa World to unwind after a long day's walking!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 14:59 Archived in Japan Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (0)

Nara is a nice place, and it has a BIG Buddha!

(The Largest Bronze Buddha in the world as a matter of fact)

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We decided to take the train out to Nara, which is just outside of Osaka. We’d heard from other travellers that it had a HUGE Buddha up there, and was generally a nice place to go and visit. Having been there now, I would definitely agree. We had a chat with the Tourist Information desk at Nara station, and she gave us a great route to take around the place which took us to all the highlights in a big circle.

Our journey started with a walk through a street which had a lot of traditional Japanese shops. We then walked up between two massive pagodas, one 3 stories high and the other 5 stories. They were both beautifully decorated with golden trim, and elegantly curved roves. A little way up the road we turned left and began entering the grounds of the temple that was home to the huge bronze Buddha. We walked through more huge wooden gates, along a sandy path which was over crowded with deer, and up to the entrance to the temple. The Buddha itself was impressive. You really begin to get a feel for its size when you walk around its base. Even the metal engraved lotus leaves on which he sits would dwarf the average man.

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We continued on and began scaling a load of stairs, at the top of which stood a giant bell, which from the look of it was still in use. Yet more stairs to climb until we reached Nigatsu-do Hall, which had yet another incredible view across the rest of Nara, to the mountains far off in the distance. We finished off the day with a stroll through Nara park, and into the town on the way back to the station.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 05:21 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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