2.1.2017 Kunming to Jianshui 

After tossing a virtual coin we decided against leaving China on an overnight bus to Laos, where it is 27 degrees and sunny, and prolong our chinese adventure by going to Jianshui and Jinghong on our way to Laos. 

We (stupidly) ignored the easy option of train travel to Jianshui instead opting for a bus which left from Kunming South bus terminal, a 45 min, 65RMB taxi ride away.

After the usual pointless xray machine checks, involving unloading and reloading of all our bags whilst no one checked the xray screen, we found the bus stand. About 4 locals came to ask where we were going, for no other reason that they wanted to know, they weren’t there to help us, just curious, which is fine by us.

Our bus left the stand at 11am sharp, it reversed about 5m and stopped for 15 mins. This reoccured a few times. We then had a policeman come on board before we eventually left the bus station.

The journey was fascinating, travelling through towns and fertile lands absolutely full of vegetables, with a few goats and water buffalo wandering about the fields. There were loads of people working the land as as well, most crouching down planting or tending the seedlings and some spraying god knows what over the growing veg.  One town we went through seemed to be the vegetable processing town with trucks piled high with veg, pak choi, spring onions, peas, Chinese cabbage that had been prepared for the chinese markets. 

We had a lunch stop, although we weren’t hungry we saw a lass with some fried spicy potatoes and got ourselves a portion. They were hot, spicy, and as usual undercooked, potatoes with garlic, spring onions, chilli, rice vinegar, coriander and salt.

With various stops on the way to pick up people from the roadside we made it to Jianshui in 4 hours. A local bus ride later we were in our new room, it was cold and slightly damp with a sign lowering our expectations for a hot shower. 

The reason we came to Jianshu was for the food, it was supposed to be great, so we set off for a snack.  The streets were wet from previous rain and the pavement was like walking on sheet ice. I have never slipped so much, sober, so we walked at a snails pace. There is little English signage here so we are somewhat out of our depth,  we spy a street stall with the spicy potatoes we had earlier and queue for a portion. They are similarly undercooked, with mint instead of coriander and another aniseedy spice we do not recognise however as it was 5 RMB, including chicken, we eat them eagerly. 

Everywhere the cafes had old ‘Aunties’ crouched over some embers with small round things on a grill, I was hoping they were goats cheese, however I was greatly disappointed to find out it was the local speciality of grilled tofu. Guy ate 13 of them before he could work out how to stop them coming.  The bill was worked put by Auntie putting a sweetcorn kernel to one side every time Guy had a piece of tofu. Genius!

We shared a wild mushroom rice, yum.

It is amazing we have come just a few 100 km and the food is so different, the tofu, the rice, the potatoes are not found anywhere else.

After more careful walking around in the pouring rain, we ducked into our last restaurant and ordered the local Cai Yu  (vegetable similar to bamboo) with pork, and some aubergines in brown sauce. The Cai Yu was probably the most tasteless food we have had in China (well, apart from tofu, but that is supposed to be tastless). The plate was swimming in oil as well, so we ended up leaving some food, a rarity for us! Aubergines were really oily but tasted delicious.  

We did tai chi in the room,  admittedly mainly to to keep warm, and wondered what 27 degrees would feel like…..

1.1.2017 Kunming comedown 

Today was mainly spent eating western food and listening to Guy sighing or complaining about being hungover. 

In the interest of balance, he did laugh, occasionally…..

Full English breakfast at Lost Garden Guesthouse. 

Me chatting to our drunk mates over breakfast…….Gez, Si, Rod, Di that was you!

Lunch at Salvador’s, burrito and Tiramasu mocha for Guy, burger for me

We also enjoyed our last night of underfloor heating with a bottle of red in our lovely room.

31.12.2016 Kunming and the bar where we couldn’t pay for a beer………

Woken to the smell of bread baking meant muesli was a distant memory. Therefore breakfast was home made bread, butter and home made jam with a double shot americano.

As we are on our way to Laos we are in need of dollars for the visa on arrival, so a trip to the Bank of China furnished us with dollars to leave this country.

Tourism next, and a wander through the Old Streets of Kunming was on the cards,  only these old streets were in the middle of being demolished, rebuilt and rebranded as the Old Streets of Kunming…..so typically chinese. Instead we wandered the Bird and Flower market, after a while wishing there were more flowers than birds / animals in tiny cages.

Our map showed a Dai restaurant close by so we went in and had a refreshing, vibrantly tasty meal, using lots of herbs, chilli and oil, you can tell we are close (800km) to Thailand. 

We also thought it best to try the Dai sweet wine, not sure it had much alcohol but it was like a sweet vaguely fermented coconut drink, lush.

Nearby was a night market area, thinking it would be great to see in the day we naively visited the streets, they were desolate apart from the trail of blood down the pavement and the soldiers practising marching in the middle of a square made up of tacky,  shiny night clubs. We hurriedly moved on.

Carrefour was around the corner so we ventured in, again it was a sprawling mish mash of assistants, weird foods and live turtles. We stuck to what we know and bought french wine. None of the assistants came near us.

Since last nights sunflower seeds were so good we made a trip back for more and also splashed out on a thermos flask and some lucky red chinese socks for Guy.

A sugar fix was required so we took a photo of this bakery for me mum.

And bought donuts from this bakery.

It was now happy hour at the local Irish bar, so being good British citizens it would be rude not to visit and hand over our well earned cash in exchange for cheap (£3.50 a pint) belgium ales….. 

The place was deserted! How different to the UK we thought, and so got on whats app and informed our mates.

Back to the guesthouse bean bags, heated floor, sunflower seeds and ale we listened to some music and called family and a couple of friends to wish them a Happy New Year. It was great to catch up.

We then needed to pay our bill at Humdinger bar, so made our way there, loving the scenery on the way. 

Outside the bar they had set up a smaller bar where they were giving away dark ale for free, he wouldn’t take any money for the ales previously and now was giving us more beer for free. It was like all our Christmases had come at once……we chatted to the expats, and eventually had to sneak inside the bar to to actually pay for a beer. 

The huge bar was packed with chinese enjoying the live music, we got tenny plastic stools to sit on at the front of the stage, felt like small royalty.  By this stage of the evening the ale was taking effect on Guy so at 11.30 I decided to get him out the bar……He still got us home and we were passed out by 11.45pm, the first NYE we have slept through…..we are getting old.

30.12.2016 Kunming

We slowly crawl into Kunming train station at 9.20. As usual the station is massive, we walk all around it and still couldn’t find the promised metro system so a helpful train station employee guided us to No 2 bus and promised us it would get to the lake and it did!  We are getting used to buses getting us to the correct places now. We have treated ourselves to a posh (ish) guesthouse for 3 nights and so were really chuffed to turn up and find the place was really lovely, illy coffee, muesli, yoghurt and full English breakfast were on the menu. We ordered muesli, fruit and yoghurt with coffees and felt virtuous, at least for a while. Our room was ready so we went up and oooh’d and ahhh’d at it, we nearly passed out with excitement when we found out we had under floor heating in our room……OMG…..we stood on the floor for ages…..

Feet warmed we set off to explore this city. We had already noticed there were lots of ethnic minorities here, the faces of the people were much more diverse than anywhere else we have been in China, this was accompanied by a heavy policy presence. 

We walked around the Green Lake where the locals were enjoying the return of seagulls for the winter by taking photos and hand feeding them. The lakeside was full of bakeries, restaurants and cafes with the odd bar thrown in, perfect for a couple of posh packers like us!

We wandered up to the nearby student area and the huge amount of cafes and bars amazed us, there was some very different food in offer as well which excited us, it really felt like we had come a long way.

On of the regional specialties is Across the bridge noodles which we tried at Brothers Jiang restaurant, no English spoken or English menu, thankfully the staff are used to westerners and are happy to throw all the food into the bowl for us, we just managed to get a photo of all the bits and pieces! The bowl was massive, it was one portion but was plenty for us 2, how the chinese stay so skinny is beyond me with these huge noodle portions.

Supermarket trip was next on our list, Walmart was nearby so we ventured in. The layout is higgledy piggledy, no straight aisles here, it is on 3 floors and no discernable logic to the layout, we wandered through noting there were nearly as many staff as customers, some with the usual loudspeakers, presumably demanding you to buy more stuff. The entrance was inviting with cured legs of ham everywhere, goats cheese and cured ham are Yunnan region specialities which we were willing to indulge in, it seemed very European and festive! We found ourselves in the red wine section, surprise, surprise! It had one aisle for red and white wine, and another 2 aisles for local baiju and other clear spirits which ranged from a few RMB to 1000’s RMB per bottle, many in fancy red presentation boxes. It is big business here. The sales assistants tried to sell us expensive red wine, we politely declined and went for a cheap Languedoc red. We aren’t that posh packer! 

Selection of pickles.

We had a look for thermos flasks, the range was huge and expensive. We didn’t buy this one.

On our way back to the guesthouse we saw a bakery with a queue, having no idea what the fuss was about we have been here long enough to just join a queue and know it will be good food at the end of it, we were not disappointed. Profiteroles filled with a delicious cream seemed to be the delicacy so we procured a couple of shovels full along with an egg tart each, for a varied diet. By the time we had left there seemed to be just as big a queue of people watching us!

We greedily ate half the bag of profiteroles, they were sooooo goooood.

As we are in Kunming for NYE we needed to do some research on bars for the big night, having not had a drink for 11 days we thought we would take it easy and start with a craft ale at 3pm just to see how the bar was. With our guesthouse map we managed to locate Humdinger microbrewery, but it was closed.  A family was outside the entrance, and this turned out to be the owner and he was more than willing, indeed insisted, that we should try the ale anyway.  It turned out that he also owned our guesthouse hence why he was happy to ply us with his ale,. We had a half litre of IPA and Belgium style wheat ale, we also got a taster of the golden ale as well. This fortuitous incident became even better when he insisted we shouldn’t pay, the till wasn’t open,  we agreed to come back tomorrow to pay our bill.

Refreshed we took a slow walk back to the guesthouse to enjoy the wine and some star anise and cinnamon flavoured roasted sunflower seeds we had bought. 

We listened to some tunes and enjoyed sitting on bean bags on the heated floor, it is the simple pleasures in life that make the difference sometimes!

Dinner was a Yunnan restaurant,  full of chinese enjoying massive plates of food.  We had a spicy beef dish, fried potatoes and fried goat’s cheese, possibly not our healthiest meal but definately one of the tastiest.

29.12.16 Jima to Yangshuo to Guilin to ……

Up in darkness and some last minute farewells to our flexible, friendly schoolmates. The mixed feeling of sadness to leave but excitment at being on the road hits. The taxi driver emerges from his house next to the school and his cab is filled with the stale, dank fug of last nights cigarette smoke. Two buses later and we pickup our online purchased train tickets from a queueless ticket counter. A first for us. To celebrate we indulge in an americano and a creme brulee latte and we idle away some of the three hours before the train is due. Next to the Taiwanese cafe is a Korean Fried Chicken restaurant which provides breakfast and train snacks are bought from the shop opposite. We have a 20 hour overnighter to Kunming in Yunnan province, our first overnight train since we arrived into Beijing in October.

The train is a T class, one of the older type with a top speed of 140kph and we have the middle and top bunks in a six birth open compartment on a carriage that sleeps 60 people. As we walk down the platform, we can read that the train originated in Shanghai and we can see that the bunks are already well populated. As we enter our carriage the air already feels tired with a stuffy, stale, claustrophobic atmosphere. Our bunks seem used but clean and unaware of bunk etiquette we climb up for a while. I eventually work out that the seats opposite our compartment are supposed to be for our use, so when they’re free, I climb down and stare out of the window.

We trundle through paddy fields where water buffalo roam and through huge cities where clusters of new high rises sprout up like mushrooms. Children run up and down the shared carriage walkway chased by shouting mothers. The middle aged man in the top bunk opposite Al climbs down and opens his case which is full of boxes of medical tablets. He rifles through a couple, reading the backs and opening packets and inspecting sachets of powders. I assume he is a travelling salesman but when he takes some tablets I realise he is ill. He spends the whole journey coughing and sneezing without covering his mouth or nose demonstrating cultural differences between us.

The afternoon dissolves into evening so its pot noodle time. A highpoint! Chicken for me and pepper beef for Al. Dessert are sweet coated peanuts.

We climb back up and read kindles as the light outside fades and the train fluorescent tubes warm up. The curtains are all drawn and then the lights are turned out and the smell of cigarette smoke wafts down the carriage.

26/27/28.12.16 Tai Chi School, Jima Village

Our last three days at the Tai Chi school have followed a routine, so we’re going to abbreviate it into one post. 

Our day would start at 7.30 with an alarm pulling us out of our comfortable slumber. Breakfast would be either plain congee (rice porridge), vegetable congee or egg noodle soup which we would savour with a view of either the sun or mist on the mountain landscape.

Our two hour morning class would start with a warm up and we would learn the movements of the initial 18 Tai Chi Forms from our teacher Ahwei. We would slowly follow his demonstration of the age old rhythmical moves, shifting our weight from one leg to the other as we twist our hips and move our hands and arms in set routines. Learning the forms was not easy as all parts of your body had to be considered in each position but it was relaxing and fun.

After class, either a bit more practice or relaxing and the drum would sound for lunch which would be freshly prepared each day by the chef, Kun. We would have around eight dishes, two or three meat, either pork, fish or chicken and the rest vegetables. Broccoli, ginger carrots, sweetcorn, garlic cabbage, aubergines, shaved cabbage stem and occasionally tofu in black bean sauce, always accompanied by steamed rice. The food was very good and I was always amazed how Kun produced so much hot food using one gas fired wok.

After lunch we would have a couple of free hours to chat or drink tea with fellow students, wander into Yangshuo or explore the local villages.

The afternoon class was led by either Master Ping or Master Kim and started with a more vigorous warm up. We would then focus on movements to help the spine and hips relax which not only helps with Tai Chi movements but can help with mobility, balance and backache. Some theory would also be explained to us. The class would end with refining the forms we had learnt so far.

At six the drum for food would bang and Kun would produce another set of delicious dishes for us, after which we would drink tea or relax and read in our room.

We both really enjoyed our first taste of Tai Chi and aim to do it again. The teachers were extremely knowledgeable and patient and our fellow students who came from the USA, Finland, Australia, Turkey, England and Russia were really welcoming. The location is beautiful, the food was great and we couldn’t recommend the school highly enough.

Click on this link for the school’s website

25.12.2016 Merry Christmas Everybody

Hope you all have a great Christmas!

We had a visit from Santa! Yes, even in China Santa knows we have been good and left us presents, we got a foldable waterproof rucksack, wind up torch each and hand warmers  (very necessary here!), we were chuffed to bits with the presents from a very kind Santa, it made our day. 

Guy lies in bed but when Irish coffee or a pint of baileys doesn’t arrive, we get up for a Christmas breakfast of noodles with egg. 

We then walk through the atmospheric mist (definitely not rain) and hire bikes from the posh hotel down the road, we are welcomed with smiles and Merry Christmas from the chinese owners. 

Trusty steeds hired we retire to the local skandi design cafe (next door to the communist party office) for Guy to have his first ever caramel macchiato which is declared amazing, I stick to americano, single origin of course, and a waffle. 

We chat to a couple from Shenzhen who work in Hong Kong about the pressures of HK working and being chinese. We have a double expresso.

Fully caffeined up we start our bike ride. It is 11.45.

We haul our tai chi aching limbs on to the bikes and cycle the route we walked the other day, the weather is completely different so Guy needs to stop every 200m and take the same shots as previously.  

We stop to see a bride in the (now familar) lying on the raft pose. She is getting absolutely drenched but doesn’t complain. Also amazed at this spectacle was an English teacher from HK, on holiday.  We spend ages observing the photos and discussing HK, teaching, Mongolia and how we wouldn’t lie on a bamboo raft in a wedding dress getting drenched.

We ease ourselves back on the bikes and cycle more and end up chatting to another couple, Bill and Helga, we chat to them until they get a ferry and we get hassled to buy a flower headband.  It really had a Christmas feel about the day, everyone is smiling, waving hello, Ni Hao, Merry Christmas, we are loving the atmosphere. 

More cycling takes us to Moon Rock, on the tourist cycle ride. We haven’t the limbs to climb the steps to see it,  we take a photo from a distance.  It is more atmospheric that way!

We follow the signs to the Big Banyon tree but don’t see it, decide it can’t be that big aand carry on. It is 2pm, we are starving so we make our way into town.

A sign for gin and tonic for 15 RMB  (less than £2) draws us in like moths to the flame. Guy orders home made chips, I have shashluka with home made bread, it is a wonderful alternative Christmas day brunch. 

Yangshuo town is full of tourists, mainly chinese, there are a few westerners around but not many. We wander around, amazed at the new shopping centre cum hotel complex that is opened despite the finishing touches not being quite complete, the wiring, pavement covers and edging etc. There is a procession of youngsters in costumes, we have no idea what for but take a photo regardless. 

We see a bar selling red wine. It is a no brainer. We order a bottle of ridiculously over priced red wine. It is delicious, we savour it for ages.

Another wander around and we see a bar with amazing lights. We have a beer then head to the curry house for a traditional British Xmas meal of dal, jeera rice, butter chicken and naan bread. It is delicious but incredibly rich compared to what we have been eating recently.

By now it is properly chucking it down with rain, dark and we have family Skype appointments to keep at home, 4 km away. We grab our Santa torches and set off cycling with no other lights on our bikes just like locals.

We manage to have time delayed, pixilated conversations with home and settle down to watch more Rick Stein and catch up with our fellow tai chi mates.